There’s never been so much choice. Consumers vote with their wallets by choosing what they buy and who they spend with. Businesses can choose their suppliers, who they work with, and which markets they serve. Employees can choose who to work for and which career path to take. And, in a world of choices, kindness has become the new currency.
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.
Corporate kindness centers on a recognition that we’re all human. Kind organizations respect people as individuals – as humans – and care enough to help them with their distinct ambitions, wants and desires.
It isn’t about being ‘nice’. It’s not a one-dimensional, everybody-gets-a-participation-ribbon thing.
In the workplace, kindness shows its strength in something as simple as the feedback cycle. Rather than solely giving people a pat on the back and saying they're doing well, kindness is caring enough to also take the time to deliver difficult messages in the right way.
If they're struggling, it’s pulling them aside and giving them the help they need – taking the time to share your experience, based on what you understand about where they want to go in their career.
Nice is easy. Kindness is deeper, more progressive, and more impactful. And, today, it's table stakes for every organization: if you’re not practicing kindness, you're not going to be successful in the long run.
Of course, what corporate kindness means varies from one culture to another. I’m American, and Americans have a reputation for having a relatively US-centric worldview. Our idea of kindness is pretty straightforward but, as I travel around the world working with multinational corporations, I see some very different definitions.
"If you’re not practicing kindness, you're not going to be successful in the long run."
To use the feedback example again, in the US we are often comfortable “telling it like it is”. In a country like India, though, that level of open communication may not work. Telling it like it is without adapting for local and regional norms of polite behavior may serve the opposite of your ‘kind’ intent.
The concept of kindness is fundamentally the same – respect for the individual, integrity, honesty, helping others grow and putting them in the center as a human – but you need to know how to deliver feedback with skill and cultural nuance. And that skill may be different, depending on where you are.
New generations with new priorities
When I started my career, as an employee you were evaluated through some very narrow performance indicators. Did you drive the specific metric you’d been told to drive, regardless of the impact it had on the rest of the business, its suppliers and its customers?
In my very first performance evaluation I was marked down because I wasn’t working 80-hour weeks. Nobody asked whether I was still getting everything done in 40 hours (I was) because the expectation was that employees would work a lot of overtime as an industry norm. That was the perceived path to success, and nothing else really mattered.
Today, the best employers look through a lens of humanity. That’s a shift that has accelerated over the past decade, especially as the Millennial generation has become a dominant part of the workforce.
This generation has new priorities, and doesn’t necessarily subscribe to what we in the US call the traditional ‘American dream’: working hard, working long hours, and eventually becoming financially successful. If your people don’t believe in that ethos and care more about individual wellness, for example, you have to rethink how you can attract them and make sure they stick around.
It's taken time for some organizations to catch up, but kindness has become a much more fundamental element of business, and there’s an acceptance that the ‘old way’ no longer works. Indeed, the old way leads to an inevitable breakdown in trust. Which in turn leads to a loss of talent, a loss of consumer confidence and adversarial supplier relationships.
"In ‘unkind’ organizations, the lack of trust often leads to layering in more and more process and administration – in other words, replacing what should be natural collaboration with forced mechanics to try and replicate it."
In ‘unkind’ organizations, the lack of trust often leads to layering in more and more process and administration – in other words, replacing what should be natural collaboration with forced mechanics to try and replicate it. This inevitably shows up in three very important leading indicators of business performance: operational efficiency, agility and innovation.
The subsequent lack of agility leads to increased cost thanks to inefficiency and ineffectiveness, and a direct hit to your P&L. On the softer side, without collaboration your engine for innovation breaks down. You lose your primary way to compete and win in a marketplace driven by constant innovation and where consumers have so much choice.
Without collaboration, you also end up with a closed view of the world; a few people at the top who believe they know what’s right, while the rest of the organization exists to execute. Inevitably, the most talented employees will depart these organizations as they cease to be challenged, grow their skills and become increasingly disconnected from passion for results.
Those companies certainly don't have inspired workforces, and the natural human desire to contribute and be a part of something new and exciting disappears. Kindness is not just the right thing to do from a human perspective, it's the lifeblood of your business in terms of innovation and retaining talent.
Kindness drives innovation and growth
The opposite happens when you get things right, and your employees can instead become your greatest brand ambassadors. I spent time working with Nike, and its employees are a fantastic example – they come to work inspired, they’re passionate, and they live the brand. They believe in the famous ‘Just Do It’ mantra. If you walk around Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, you can feel the culture everywhere. It’s such an inclusive one, and it permeates beyond the campus, impacting the company’s whole performance.
On the flip side, years ago I worked with a food manufacturer that was having serious issues with its supply chain. Service levels were poor, in large part because there was no collaboration around sales and operations planning. The sales team was home to creative people figuring out how to sell stuff by coming up with endless variations of pricing, promotion and driving demand. At the same time you had supply planners trying to figure out how much product they’d need in a specific place at a specific point in time, based on historical demand patterns.
And the two teams didn’t communicate. We started off by implementing a new demand and supply planning solution, because we thought we’d solve the problem by having all the relevant data in the same place. We were wrong. We didn’t factor in that the salespeople hated technology and wouldn’t embrace a solution that took any time away from selling, whether it helped the supply planners or not.
Ultimately, we turned it into a human problem, and it became about how we could address the relationship between those two teams. At first we forced a shared, collaborative environment but, once they realised how that could support their own targets, it all clicked into place. Our approach considered each person's definition of success. What does that supply planner need? How do they get measured? How about that salesperson? Where do they overlap? Its foundation was in kindness: humans understanding and supporting other humans, collaborating to reach a shared goal.
Being kind to employees matters for customers too. Earlier this year we surveyed over 6,000 people worldwide to understand the factors they consider when making a new purchase. In the US, 49% surveyed always consider how the company selling the product or service treats its employees. Kindness is a way to engage employees and means of innovation. It also builds lasting customer loyalty.
And I think, if you look at all the lists of most innovative companies, you'll find parallels. You’ll see huge organizations, like Procter & Gamble and Unilever, that understand the importance of individual contribution and collaboration in driving innovation. They hire some of the brightest, most talented people in the world. They equip them with a framework to work together effectively, they don't micromanage anybody, and they reward collaboration, decision making and innovation.
Reading about companies as big as Nike, P&G and Unilever might give you pause. After all, the smaller, more agile start-ups find it far easier to be kind, don’t they? They’re the ones with the foosball tables, right?
But much bigger organizations are successfully embedding the kindness elements of those start-up cultures, combining the learning opportunity, the challenge, and the personal prestige. They’re talent-magnets, they’re collaborative in every sense, and they’re giants of innovation as a result.
They’ve embraced corporate kindness, and they’re reaping the benefits.
Join the #EconomicsOfKindness discussion on LinkedIn here.
About the author
Jeff’s an industrial engineer by training – he brings the methodologies and systems-thinking approaches of the trade to his work with the consumer-packaged goods industry. Over the last 35 years, he’s deconstructed the industry’s most complex challenges, and worked with clients in more than 20 countries around the world. Jeff briefly considered retirement, but ‘insanely curious’ by nature, he’s returned to build Baringa’s US consumer products practice.Learn more about Jeff
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