The currency of kindness

Recently, during a growth planning workshop, a client team challenged me to re-engineer my well-proven approach to thinking about business worth. They wanted to attribute a value to “doing good” in their planning. They wanted to find a way to quantify kindness. [Spoiler: we haven’t succeeded yet – but we are actively working on it].

So instead of answering a deceptively simple question “how will we generate the revenue, and what machine will we need to deliver that?”, we’re now adding “and how much good will we do along the way, and what opportunity cost are we prepared to carry in order to enable these acts of kindness?”.

I’ll share more on how we are addressing this as we evolve our thinking. But I wanted to take a step back and share some thoughts about kindness at work in general.

There’s been a lot of talk about kindness recently. It makes sense. We’ve been disconnected, divorced from the small clues that people might need a hand, remote from one another and with a lack of proximity can come an erosion of empathy (just see how some people feel they are entitled to behave on social media like Twitter).

We instinctively understand that kindness is a “good thing” and intuitively feel that it could be beneficial, but it is very hard to quantify the impact of kind acts and to effectively define a currency of kindness.

I’ve looked at: what kindness actually is; why kindness matters and the impact it has on us; the amplifying nature of kindness; the importance of kindness in a remote working world and some early thoughts on how you might measure quantify the currency of kindness.

What is kindness?

The Oxford dictionary definition is “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate” and the American dictionary says kindness is “the quality of being generous, helpful, and caring about other people, or an act showing this quality”. There are some powerful words in those two short sentences. Generosity. Consideration. Caring. No surprise that decades of research proves that kind acts have a measurable impact on both the recipient and the donor.

I think that kindness is about the intention of the deed. Being nice is about how you feel and little to do with the recipient – being kind is about your intention to be kind, about a considerate act towards another with no real expectation of a return.

But don’t confuse kindness with niceness. As business leaders, you have a responsibility to your business and not just an individual. If you’re just nice to them, you’re not helping them improve, not helping them identify areas to work on and ultimately, you’re not helping them contribute fully to your mission. Being ‘nice’ is palpably neither generous nor considerate. As Nick Lowe said so melodically, you’ve gotta be cruel to be kind (in the right measure).

So why does kindness matter?

And what’s the impact it has on us? Firstly, being kind to others is good for you.

Kindness increases self-esteem through oxytocin (the Love Hormone), energy levels, happiness, lifespan (yes you live longer if you’re kind), pleasure and a positive feeling (thanks serotonin). At the same time, kindness reduces pain (through endorphins), stress (by lowering cortisol levels), anxiety, depression, and blood pressure (oxytocin again). (Source: https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/the-science-of-kindness)

So just the act of being kind has a hugely beneficial effect on you before we even consider what it might be doing to the recipient of your kind act.

And we all know the impact a kind act can have on ourselves. It makes us feel supported, promotes a sense of belonging, improves self-worth, can make us feel more a part of a community, makes us feel we matter, affects the way we feel and impacts the way we behave. It can have a direct effect on productivity, creativity, and effectiveness. It can increase engagement and the impact of that engagement.

Being kind is hugely beneficial to everyone involved. And it spreads.

The amplifying nature of kindness

A Stanford University study found that “people imitate not only the particulars of positive actions, but also the spirit underlying them”. The amazing thing about kindness is not only that it is contagious, but that it takes on new forms as it does so – like a pandemic of positivity. Some of this may be driven by conformity, but the under-lying reason doesn’t really matter. The fact is that when people are the recipients of a kind act, or they observe kindness, they are far more likely to pass it on. An HBR article sums it up well “When people receive an act of kindness, they pay it back, research shows — and not just to the same person, but often to someone entirely new. This leads to a culture of generosity in an organization”.

Kindness feeds on itself – that feels like a huge lesson for leaders. And be warned, unkindness, such as gossiping (for that is what it is) has an equally powerful impact. So, mind your culture. (Source: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/kindness-contagion/)

The importance of kindness in a remote world

The explosion in remote working means that less ideation has been applied to enabling kindness when we’re not sharing the same space. But I’m hearing a pretty consistent message from agency leaders, remote teams find it harder to nourish culture and that small, spontaneous acts of kindness happen less often.

This suggests to me that we need to be (a) more conscious and deliberate about the need to be kind to our colleagues and (b) find new ways to do so.

What is the equivalent of making a coffee on your way home for a colleague who is staying late? Calling out a great bit of work? Even a simple nod to recognize a point well made? My instinct says that the answer is not another technology, or rewards of some kind. Kindness is about consideration – and that creates connections and trust. The answer therefore could be to create moments where we can recognize each other’s contributions – make sure people are ‘seen’. Being considerate typically involves making an effort, even a small one. So, in remote teams, kindnesses might take more effort, but it’s that very effort that adds impact to the act. That may be the way we reconnect and nurture trust more readily. One solution might be to ask your teams what feels like kindness in this new working environment – it will no doubt be a different group of actions than would have been collated two years ago.

An abiding theme here is that kindness breeds kindness. And we also know that we follow our leaders (see my comments about HiPPOs in the meeting article). This puts added pressure on leaders and founders to be kind. If you’re not sure what will have an impact, then ask people. Remember to listen and then do something with what you learn.

Some early thoughts on how you might measure quantify the currency of kindness

It is far easier to identify the consequences of kindness in a business – strong and consistently applied values; high retention and staff satisfaction rates; low absentee rates; higher productivity; strong NPS score and so on – than to measure kindness itself. And of course, it almost impossible to unpick the impact of individual acts of kindness from all the other contributory factors.

Another way to see this is to look at the other end of the spectrum – by measuring ‘kindnesses’. One thing we’re using in our prototype with my client is charity days – either those taken during work time or those of their team generally. Back at agenda21 we had a simple shout out system called a Pat on the Back. This was a public note of thanks shared on a board in the kitchen. Every month this was crammed with ‘Pats’ (we had postcards printed with Pat Butcher’s smiling face on them scattered all over the building). That always felt like an indicator of a healthy, supportive, and considerate culture where people recognized the efforts of their peers.

The HBR again shares a valuable insight: “when organisations actively foster kindness it leads to a culture of generosity. In a landmark study analyzing more than 3,500 business units with more than 50,000 individuals, researchers found that acts of courtesy, helping, and praise were related to core goals of organizations. Higher rates of these behaviors were predictive of productivity, efficiency, and lower turnover rates. When leaders and employees act kindly towards each other, they facilitate a culture of collaboration and innovation”. (Source: https://hbr.org/2021/05/dont-underestimate-the-power-of-kindness-at-work)

I haven’t yet been able to define “the currency of kindness” but it is clear to see its impact. Whatever that currency might look or feel like, I’d recommend you keep looking for it and then spend it with great abandon.

Note: I don’t know where I first heard the term “currency of kindness”. I found it as a single line in an email I sent to myself about ten years ago. Clearly it was a thought or an idea I wanted to come back to. I suspect it will be one I will return to again.

Andy

Every Wednesday I book out an hour to hold a FREE agency leaders surgery. If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues. You can help yourself to my calendar, here. Speaking to a diverse group of agency leaders helps me stay current and contextualise the issues I’m seeing with my clients. So please see this conversation as a genuine collaboration where we both hope to learn something new.

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If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.