How Kindness Should Really Factor into Leadership

Kindness gets a bad rap.

Culturally, we consider powerful language, strong positions, and direct feedback to be necessary for leadership.

We also tend to assume these characteristics run counter to kindness. But that’s because we confuse kindness with agreeableness.

We think we’re being kind when we spare feelings and avoid conflict, even though we’re in fact being agreeable, which is counterproductive. Or, we reject kindness entirely and run the risk of being so inconsiderate we provoke others to become defensive, shut down, or unnecessarily fight back.

Both scenarios stall growth, hamper progress, and cause serious people problems.

Because I have resting nice face and own two different shirts that say “be kind” on them, I may seem biased when I argue that kindness is a necessary component of good leadership.

Yet it is precisely our misinterpretation of what kindness means that leads to bad behavior and weak performance.

That’s why we need to clearly define our term, and look at how its proper application can foster positive outcomes.

What Kindness Really Means

If we dig into the definition of kindness, two ideas come up: help and respect.

First, kindness is a noun — to do a kindness is synonymous with doing a good deed and is associated with the act of being helpful. Second, to be kind is a verb that means to treat others with respect, usually by being patient.

Here’s what kindness is not: placating, cloying, or non-confrontational.

When it comes to work, I believe there’s another layer to kindness at play, one best articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”

Kind leaders care about the growth of their people and teams. They are also more likely to be successful, because they forge top performers in the process of helping people to become their aspirational selves.

But what does this look like in practice?

How to Use Kindness as a Leader

In Collective Genius, Linda Annette Hill, Emily Truelove, Greg Brandeau, and Kent Lineback define generosity in leaders as, “the willingness, based on their own sense of personal security, to share power, control, and credit.”

Kindness and generosity are both closely linked to help, and as a leader, it’s your responsibility to help your employees succeed.

Through a combination of organizational architecture, radical candor, and objectivity, you can grow your employees to new heights, the kind way.

Conjure Your Inner Organizational Architect

As leaders ascend through their companies, their role gradually becomes what Michael D. Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, calls the “organizational architect.” Core responsibilities shift from execution to laying out the organizational system through “strategic direction, structure, core processes, and skill bases.”

During this process, leaders are not operating in a vacuum. They must direct, structure, and empower the individuals on their teams.

Resist the temptation to manage all elements of the organization yourself. Instead, provide the guidance your talent needs to rise to the new challenges you have planned for them to tackle.

As Ray Dalio wrote in Principles, “the greatest gift you can give someone is the power to be successful. Giving people the opportunity to struggle rather than giving them the things they are struggling for will make them stronger.”

Remember, it’s not just a gift; it’s a fundamental kindness to help those you lead be who they always believed they could be.

Embrace Radical Candor

If you set out to give responsibility and challenge to your team members, you must also learn how to tell them when they’re wrong.

When Kim Scott first released Radical Candor, I shared the book with virtually everyone in my professional circle.

The central premise is that leaders need to care personally and challenge directly to both get the most from and give the most to their employees. This means pointing out mistakes and confronting problems openly and transparently, but doing both from a place of respect and helpfulness.

We often construct kindness as ruinous empathy — a common workplace phenomenon that involves sparing someone’s feelings by never challenging them directly.

But in fact, kindness is taking someone aside and, from a genuine interest in their own growth and advancement, identifying missteps and failings. This is much more in line with radical candor.

In its simplest form, “radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize.”

While Scott argues that obnoxious aggression is a step above ruinous empathy because its honest and may facilitate change, it’s important to remember that a step above does not mean good.

Obnoxious and aggressive feedback risk can alienate, silence, or even victimize your employees. In an extremely competitive employment market, I doubt this approach will help with retention. I also doubt it fuels productivity.

Both ruinous empathy and obnoxious aggression also damage trust. This is deadly to your organization, because innovation generally stems from trust.

After researching countless organizations, one of the biggest findings to come out of Collective Genius was, “trust…encourages members to take calculated risks as they explore new ideas and approaches, and to live with and learn from the inevitable missteps. Trust is what also makes members willing to ensure the risks and vulnerability of sharing their ideas; the raw material of creative clashes. People will only volunteer their thoughts and suggestions when they feel their talents are recognized and utilized by the group as it pursues its purpose.”

Don’t compromise trust; deliver radically candid feedback.

And remember that radically candid feedback always includes positive feedback, too. It’s just as important to say, “you’re right” as “you’re wrong.”

Check Your Bias

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was canonized for small acts of everyday kindness, most notably treating those she didn’t like with as much kindness as those she did. That’s how hard being equally kind is — she didn’t have to martyr herself before a storming army, but simply be respectful and helpful to everyone.

As a leader, you need to commit to showing kindness to all your employees, including those you don’t connect with or understand.

This, of course, does not mean forgiving bad work or bad behavior. In both cases, kindness would require radical candor and depending on the situation, removal.

It does mean resisting the inclination to give more feedback and attention to those you like. If you feel you could be great friends with certain members of your team, make sure to watch how you are around them, compared to how you are around others you would never want to grab a drink with.

It also means checking your own assumptions. As a leader, your questions should always sound like: “Is it good or bad work? Is it good or bad behavior?” No caveats.

I admit I fall victim to this trap myself. Instead of saying to myself, “it’s good work,” I have caught myself qualifying, “it’s good work for such a young team member.” This is a mistake and probably indicates I either assigned too big of a challenge, or am covering up for subpar performance.

Don’t qualify, and always check your bias, regardless of whether that bias inclines you to a too positive or too negative response.

Kindness and Culture

If I had my way, every company would define kindness as a core value and live it out daily. But this is a guide to kindness in leadership, so I will limit my soapboxing to two core points.

Kind cultures are productive ones because they inherently reject a Darwinian mindset, and provide transparency around expectations.

Reject a Darwinian Mindset

“Sink or swim” thinking is more likely to sink your business than uncover the next great leaders.

In fact, it might surface the worst ones. In natural Darwinian systems, parasites are highly successful. Do you want to see that same dynamic in the business world?

No matter how talented people are, throwing them into their roles without providing them with the information, resources, and connections they need to successful sets them up for failure.

Remember, being kind is about treating people with respect and helping them be who they aspire to be. Abandoning them to chance certainly doesn’t jibe with that definition, and neither does handholding.

Your organization should train managers to support team members by giving them insights into cultural norms, career pathways, and even just where and how to get the tools they need to do their jobs.

Invest in a ninety-day onboarding process that sets clear benchmarks, milestones, and expectations and carry that emphasis on providing information and feedback over into the rest of the person’s tenure.

Provide Transparency and Set Expectations

When you tell people how the organization operates, what you need them to achieve, and why both things matter, they usually meet or exceed expectations.

Virtually everyone wants to succeed. As long as your team members possess the necessary aptitude and competencies, they will chart the courses to excellent performance. They just have to know where they’re going, and what are acceptable and unacceptable ways to get there.

From the start, design your organization as one where everyone understands what is expected of them in terms of what they deliver and how they behave.

Consistently share public and private feedback, and build transparency around company performance into all-hands meetings, internal communications, and culture off-sites.

Also consider committing to a “no-penalty” culture in which people can transparently share their objections, ideas, and perspectives without being punished if they’re wrong or change their minds. This will lead to greater organizational transparency and foster more innovation.

Parting Words

Obviously, kindness is not the only way to drive organizational results; if it were, I wouldn’t be writing this article. All the unkind leaders in the world would have been fired, or the unkind companies they led would have failed.

Fear, pressure, domination, non-confrontation, and even luck are all effective strategies in their own ways — they just often don’t stay effective. People quit. They lie and cheat to get ahead. They check out because they can.

With kindness, you avoid these problems — specifically with good, motivated workers — by helping them pursue their biggest self-interest: growth.

Team members who are growing, who see a path to advancing themselves, and who believe in an organization that serves them, will stay longer, work harder, and evangelize more.

And they’re more likely to believe in you and your company, because you believed in them.

So, be kind.