Kindness often takes a backseat in the workplace, as organizations prioritize the pressure to achieve financial success. Yet, the extent to which businesses are ignoring kindness is still surprising: An astonishing 98 percent of employees report experiencing uncivil behavior at work. And whether it's verbal abuse from a manager, passing blame on mistakes or talking down to others, even the smallest incivilities can foster a culture of disrespect.
A hostile workplace doesn't just damage a company internally; it can also take a toll on customer relationships and brand perception. But "kindness" can't be implemented with a quick financial investment, so what can organizations do to create a more positive workplace?
We spoke with two women who have dedicated their careers to this very topic. Organizational psychologist Dr. Monica Worline researches how to improve workplaces through courageous thinking, compassionate leadership and positive cultures. Career and life coach Steffi Black talks about the power of kindness at schools and corporations. Here, Dr. Worline and Black share why a kind workplace is important, and how HR leaders can create a sustainable culture change.
What general factors contribute to a lack of kindness in the workplace?
Dr. Worline: Two main factors can contribute to a lack of kindness: time pressure and performance pressure dampen people's ability to form relationships. Workplace relationships often make the fundamental difference between whether or not people find their place of work to be compassionate. Time and performance pressure prohibit people from building high-quality connections.
Black: Corporate visions and missions are often broad, and don't help employees connect to what they stand for. If leadership is only interested in making money, where is the heart of an organization? Many times, places talk about doing charitable acts but don't start within their own ranks, because expectations for kindness aren't clear.
Are emotions in the workplace contagious? If so, how can leaders work to combat this or put it to good use?
Dr. Worline: Emotions themselves are contagious across people. If I come into work and I'm particularly joyful, that will be contagious to the people I interact with. The same is true for negative emotion. Different organizations have a different general feel; the aggregation of emotions at work contributes to an overall positive or negative climate.
Black: Kind actions or negative emotions cause a ripple effect. Leaders can combat this by being aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and requiring the same of their team. Employees look to leaders as role models. Kindness is accountability, which means directly dealing with bully-like behavior, and having consequences if that behavior doesn't change.
How can HR leaders work to create a kinder workplace?
Dr. Worline: Look at how much an organization is supporting high-quality relationships, and design ways for people to get to know each other better. Get people involved in creating the type of workplace they want to be in. Create counsels, task forces and committees focused on creating small change. Then, share the most innovative solutions as symbols, stories and positive examples of change.
Black: Honestly, it comes down to wanting to be an amazing inspiration for others. It starts with clear policies on what's important to your workplace, and conveying that to your employees. HR can encourage leadership to know these core values, and work to ensure each employee understands and is clear on the company's vision and mission.
What are some changes organizations can make to positively impact culture?
Dr. Worline: Having a sense of purpose, and making sure that purpose is truly authentic and permeates the entire organization is essential. Another aspect you'll find in a lot of very positive cultures is a quality of playfulness. The expression of playfulness is different in each industry, but it's the idea that people can lightheartedly interact with each other while still doing quality work.
Black: An organization that has a clear vision and mission that includes fairness, kindness, and accountability can produce a culture that can cultivate kindness. People want to work hard for a leadership team that inspires and empowers. If a company's leadership team meets regularly so the organization's vision, mission, and goals are clear, they, in turn, can empower their team.
How has the perspective on workplace kindness changed over the years—particularly in the age of social media? Are workplace “bullies" or negative coworkers more obvious?
Dr. Worline: When people go through a rough time in their lives outside of work—the death of a loved one, divorce, or a sick child—the extent to which their organization can be supportive is a big part of how they come to say: 'overall, is this a great place to work, or not?' With the rise of social media, there's an increased power to spread both positive and negative feelings. Social media is a challenge that was not part of the landscape a decade ago. It's not a coincidence that we've seen growth about how to create a positive work environment at the same time as the growth of these communication tools.
Black: Being known as a “meanie” is bad for business. Social media has heralded more transparency, and part of that means kind is the new cool. What may have slipped under the rug before is now out there for the public to see. In a way, the public, via social media channels, has made companies more accountable for their actions.
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