Friday, 27 June 2014

Kindness in your organization

In a recent Atlantic article on successful marriage (that thorniest of relationships), Emily Esfahani Smith defines practicing kindness as "being generous to your partner's intentions". She explains that kindness is a mindset that assumes that the intention of the other person is positive. As an example, if someone is hurting your feelings, it is because of a misunderstanding, not because of an evil intention to hurt. 

This generosity towards others' intentions - we might also call it goodwill - is fundamental in the types of organizations that this blog concerns itself with. Tackling a problem or engaging someone with kindness is a way to recast the problem or relationship on a positive footing, and even more importantly, to stop a negative situation from spiraling out of control. 

That positive cast is crucial if one is looking for innovative or breakthrough solutions. If the debate comprises blaming and recrimination (downward spiral) there is no room for growth, exploration, and mutually beneficial feedback loops. Kindness, as considered here, is a fundamental ingredient in the very survival of the organization, particularly in a challenging environment. 

Treating others with kindness is particularly hard in corporate environments, where mutually exclusive 'success' is often conceived only as a zero-sum gain - a take-no-prisoners war of sorts. There are plenty of anecdotes of psychotic bosses that enjoy inflicting pay on subordinates, and a whole cottage industry of cathartic cultural items devoted to it. In fact, being kind to others can even be perceived as a sign of weakness, but only if it is misunderstood: being kind does not mean accepting anything or foolishly applauding any idiotic idea. The kind person can criticize, but in a positive and uplifting way, and will provide the other with a face-saving exit: "I know you've worked very hard on this project, and the results are encouraging, but sadly they do not meet the objectives that we'd set. What do you propose that we do?" 

The hope lies in that most of us (humans) like to be treated kindly, because it's simply much nicer than the alternative. We don't want our intentions misunderstood, and we certainly aren't all out to 'get' the other guy and inflict pain. Those not trying to step over others on their way to the top (the vast majority) just want to do their job as best as possible, in as meaningful a way as possible, and to be treated with kindness. 

What to do, then, to ensure that kindness is the default position in your organization given that it is not something "normal"? As with all cultural shifts, it is a long-term endeavor requiring significant top-brass buy-in. The most important person, in this case, is the organization's spiritual leader (a CEO, a chairperson, a sponsor, a coach, a widely respected employee) who can start and sustain a cultural shift towards the acceptability of failure, the importance of mutual goodwill, and the imperative of trust/confidence. These are the key elements of kindness that an organization must nurture on a daily basis. 

How will you know you've succeeded? I would state that it is when you can make yours psychologist Ty Tashiro's advice (quoted in the above article) : "A lot of times, a [person] is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent."

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