I hate the saying, “cruel to be kind”. We don’t need cruelty in any part of our lives.
Instead, we need clarity.
This article is part of our series on the Economics of Kindness. Find out how we're changing the way that business sees kindness in the workplace.
Being crystal clear and telling someone what you truly think is a cornerstone of kindness. They might not want to hear it in the moment, and it might sting a little, but it’s often what we value most in the people we surround ourselves with.
But clarity is risky, and as humans we’re hardcoded to avoid such situations. If you look at the history of our species, the worst punishment has always been to be exiled. Thousands of years later, we’ll still say and do anything we can to remain part of our tribe.
"Being crystal clear and telling someone what you truly think is a cornerstone of kindness."
And yet, when I ask leaders to tell me about the most significant people in their lives, most will talk about those who’ve said the difficult things when they needed it – and how transformative that was.
We know the importance of clarity, and we value those who practice it, but we sometimes struggle to do the same. That’s because clarity requires courage – and that courage has to come from the top.
Kindness starts with self-accountability
In 1999, I sold the shares in the company I cofounded, but two years ago I had a revelation: while we had a “no arseholes” recruitment policy, I’d been the arsehole all along. But, because I was a co-founder-partner, nobody would tell me that.
If only someone had called me out. I’d have understood how I was being unkind and I could’ve got better at recognising it. Surely I’d at least have apologised, taken some responsibility and acknowledged my own fallibility?
Well, probably not.
One thing I highlight with leadership teams today is how unkind it is to expect somebody else to call you out for what you’ve done wrong. Unkindness is making a commitment – in my case to hire no arseholes – but expecting an assistant or colleague to call you out on not sticking to it.
I’ve since learned that the self-awareness and self-accountability I was so clearly lacking is a vital facet of kind leadership.
Strange as it sounds, most senior leaders I work with don’t realise just how senior a leader they’ve become. They haven’t quite digested how impactful they are within their organisation, and they sometimes don’t understand that they’re walking around with a megaphone and a magnifying glass held to everything they do.
That’s why one of my first interventions is to ask them to be more accountable – to use “I” instead of “we”. Phrases like “we need to do this” instantly remove individual accountability, and that’s often why nothing ends up changing. Teams and organisations – the “we” and “us” – don’t change, individuals do.
Similarly, many organisations that think they’ve cracked it – just like mine a quarter of a century ago – have instead created a culture of ‘artificial harmony’.
Everyone seems to get along, people nod their agreement in meetings, but they’re not saying how they really feel. Of course, they wouldn’t say so (that would be unkind), and they couldn’t possibly disagree with you – you’re the boss, after all. Instead, they leave the meeting thinking, “I’m not doing that”.
Artificial harmony leads to triangulation, escalation, friction, conflict, slow growth, poorly produced products, and projects that run late and over budget. There’s a lot of obfuscation, and you get ‘cc all’ emails where the reality of the message is buried. There are 50-slide decks as a pre-read.
You’ll have experienced at least a couple of these before, no doubt – and they’re all good indicators of low levels of clarity and honesty, and high levels of artificial harmony.
Tackling artificial harmony and creating a more human organisation
You can break the cycle, but you have to start by being honest with yourself. Look inside and examine the times and places when you’ve been unkind, dodged a difficult conversation, or been artificially harmonious.
To begin with, have more honest conversations where it’s safest, and seek the support of your team. Changing a culture to become clearer, on your own, is risky – but as a senior leadership team you can keep an eye on each other, offer support, acknowledge when you’ve done things well, and share when you don’t think someone has said everything they’re really thinking.
"You can break the cycle, but you have to start by being honest with yourself."
Don’t broadcast it or make it a comms exercise; just do it. Wait until you’re hearing people around you saying, “this is a kinder, clearer place to be”. Make your behaviour communicate the culture shift instead.
Kind, clear leadership fosters trust within your teams. Trust is a combination of capability (how good are you at your job?), reliability (do you do what you say you will?), and honesty (are you being clear and telling me everything?) – but the denominator in this equation is self-orientation (how selfish do you think I am?).
I could be great at my job, very reliable and brutally honest with you, but if you think I’m completely out for myself that will undermine your level of trust. Likewise, if you think you’re only ever getting half the story – the nice part – you’ll find it hard to trust what I say.
When someone is kind and you can trust them to be honest, you experience their kindness in a different way – it feels more legitimate, more balanced, and you can rely on it.
If there’s unkindness at your organisation, you hold back. You hesitate. You’re not fully clear. You think very carefully about what you say, when you say it, who you say it to, and how you say it, so you can make sure it’s well received and fits within the cultural norms without risking a backlash.
You diminish yourself and bend yourself out of shape. You reduce your full self.
"When someone is kind and you can trust them to be honest, you experience their kindness in a different way – it feels more legitimate."
That’s why high-trust organisations outperform low-trust ones. They move faster, burn less resource in doing so, and tend to be more innovative and creative because people feel safer to say what they really think.
And that’s the other half of the formula: psychological safety. It’s an invitation to bring more of who you are to work, and to feel able to make mistakes without fearing the consequences.
None of this is easy. It’s uncomfortable, it doesn’t feel familiar, and to begin with we don’t feel very skilled at it. It feels risky to be more vulnerable, open and human – we’re fed stories of infallible leaders who are always right, and that’s the expectation we place on ourselves.
But, when we practise kindness with true clarity, the outcomes are extraordinary.
About the author
Jeremy Sweeney has spent almost a quarter of a century coaching leadership teams, and has been studying and practising systemic psychology and psychotherapy for nearly as long. Before moving into coaching, he ran two successful, multi-million-pound businesses – one of which he co-founded.
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