What is kindness and when have I experienced it? I was asked to consider this question when I started the PG Cert in Psychology of Kindness and Wellbeing at Work. I was surprised at how hard I had to think about it. What does kindness mean to me, when have I experienced it in the workplace and how did it make me feel?

Kind workplaces are better for productivity

A growing body of kindness research shows that kindness has enormous benefits for our mental and physical wellbeing. Not only in our personal lives but importantly in our workplaces too. Some work by Gallup on employee engagement vs employee satisfaction and organisational culture found that organisations who take a kind and considered approach to the physical and psychological well being, engagement and growth of people experience higher levels of productivity, retention and resilience in challenging times.

Kind workplaces increase a sense of belonging and community. If people feel good they are more likely to be positively engaged, happy and resilient.

It sounds obvious, something we should all be doing and it may sound easy! But the positive value and power of simple acts of kindness in the workplace can be overlooked and undervalued amidst a working world of fast paced demands, financial pressures and global pandemics.

Cultivating kindness in an organisation doesn’t have to mean implementing costly wellbeing packages. It can mean thinking about civility in the workplace or what the company values are and how they are lived. Sometimes it’s as simple as remembering to say hello or check in with colleagues and clients when you get to work or join a call. It’s nuanced, but small gestures are powerful. They can make all the difference to someone's engagement, motivation and productivity. And it's valuable for clients to see that you value kindness in your approach.

What is kindness?

Kindness means making a choice. A choice to do something that helps someone else. And importantly, it must be authentic and positive in its motivation. So there is no expectation of gaining something in return.

Often thought of alongside compassion and empathy, kindness isn’t just an emotion. It is defined by our actions. You may think kind thoughts about someone but the kindness lies in the actions you take as a result. Kindness is about the demonstration of the emotion.

Kindness looks like different things to different people. Kindness looks like different things to different people. In the workplace it could mean spending extra time with a colleague who needs some support. Or noticing something different about a colleague and checking in. It could mean being given the flexibility to work where you want to, or being able to craft your role to best suit your strengths. And it could be as simple as remembering to say “Morning, how was your weekend?” These are just some examples of the ways we as individuals and as organisations and communities can show kindness.

Kindness in our workplaces

As a concept and an action, kindness has far reaching effects on our psychological well being.Mental Health Awareness Week in 2020 focussed on the power of random acts of kindness and the benefits they bring to our physical and mental wellbeing. Being kind makes us feel good and research backs this up. It is good for our mental and physical wellbeing. It reduces stress, boosts self esteem, reduces isolation, and promotes a sense of belonging. And it helps connect us to others. Significantly for organisations, it’s contagious. It’s no wonder that elements of kindness sit across the robustFive Ways to Wellbeing model. Connect, give and notice are good examples of where kindness can have multiple benefits.

A CIPD and Simply Health Report on Health and Wellbeing at Work 2021 found that stress was responsible for 33% of short-term absence and 48% for long-term absence. By focusing on how organisations can operate with kindness, we can reduce burnout and stress. The negative implications for people and workplaces are clear.As we adjust to remote and hybrid working, a kind workplace has perhaps never been more important.

Capacity and resources for kindness

Nineteen members of the Unboxed team in a company meeting, turning to face the camera and smiling, with a presentation on a screen at the back of the room

Some things are easier said than done. The act of giving does mean some level of cost to ourselves. Time and energy are things we ‘give up’ to help someone else.While these acts bring us rewards, these gifts are easier to offer when we have the resources and capacity we need. Being under-resourced makes it more difficult for people to keep a sense of civility and consideration for others.

This is where organisations and leaders can play their part. Key questions for leaders include:

  • what are the values of the organisation and does the organisational climate work to support its people and clients?
  • how high are demands on people and are the right resources in place to maintain civility?
  • what level of control and autonomy do people have?
  • do leaders model expected behaviours

COR Theory suggests that we are motivated to keep and protect our resources. These can be physical, emotional, or practical. And they affect us in the workplace and in our personal lives. It’s difficult to maintain kind behaviour when our resources are stretched or we feel we are in threat of losing them. Employees are people with personal lives and demands outside of the workplace. Building good relationships and a culture of trust, creates an environment which means people can say when they are struggling with competing demands. This is part of what a kind organisation looks like.

Kindness at Unboxed

We’ve worked hard over the last few years to build a sustainable culture with our core values and our people’s wellbeing at heart.

But what does that actually mean? I asked Unboxeders to think about what kindness means to them, and what a kind organisation looks like. People noted down:

  • trust
  • empathy
  • listening
  • psychological safety
  • noticing
  • cake!

These are all key themes that align with a supportive and kind organisational culture, particularly on an individual level. But it’s not enough to rely on individuals - our organisation needs to enable individual behaviours by creating a climate of kindness.

A Miro board the questions "What does kindness mean to you?" and "What does a kind organisation mean to you?", with around thirty responses including "Trust", "Empathetic", "Being genuine" and even "Bringing cakes into the office!"

Setting the tone

Setting the tone of the organisation, its values and culture is so important. Leaders and founders are often in the spotlight for creating the climate of the workplace. They need to show the values and behaviours they expect of others. They need to establish structures and support to engage and motivate people.

Most of us have had experience of organisations that say they do one thing but on the ground, do another. The reality is borne out in the work delivered to clients. It is the climate of the workplace that allows aspirations to become action. Embedding values into the ways of working and behaving delivers for clients too.

At Unboxed, our values are very important to us. We talk about them during recruitment, with our clients and amongst our teams. We live our values every day. When we talk about openness and transparency, we mean that we communicate in the open with honesty and care. When we talk about healthier relationships, we mean we are considerate of each other. And this applies within Unboxed and with our clients. When we talk about learning by doing, our team know they can make mistakes without blame and we learn from experience.

While leaders set the tone, we can all lead on aspects of kindness. To me, our value of care and attention means we take care of each other, the work we do and the people we deliver to.

Relationships matter

Good interpersonal relationships are essential for a flourishing workplace. Positive relationships with our peers, with our leaders and our clients are vital for building trust and creating an environment where people feel able to challenge themselves and others.

Being kind sometimes means having to give difficult feedback or challenge someone’s views or assumptions. But if it comes from a genuinely motivated position of care and kindness, that challenge is a way of helping people to grow and find the best solutions to complex problems. When we have good relationships in the workplace we feel better supported and more able to handle challenging situations with resilience.

In a working environment where there is a bullying culture, there will be lower levels of confidence and collaboration. A lack of support and trust are damaging. And this in turn, is likely to be harmful to the wellbeing of individuals, teams and the company.

Keep talking about kindness

Talking to people about the psychology of kindness in the workplace has prompted a range of responses. Sometimes I am met with a surprised response - "That's a thing?" And often people say "oh that's such an important topic to be talking about."

Creating organisations built on good interpersonal relationships and kindness is something we should all be striving for. Robin Banerjee of Sussex University sums this up when he says “ the process of bringing different perspectives together in a kind and collegial way, with a shared commitment to learning, is so powerful.”

The outcomes are clear - a happier, more effective and more productive workplace.