Last year I read something that blew my mind. “An organization is five times more likely to be considered innovative if it is also considered kind,” wrote Fast Company contributor Mahfuz Ahmed.
It blew my mind not because it surprised me—but because I was impressed to read actual data showing the link between kindness and its ability to foster an environment of innovation.
You see, I’ve long been a believer in the power of this virtue, particularly in the workplace where it gets so easily ignored. Many leaders, however, confuse genuine kindness with being nice.
Let me offer this example to show the difference: I’ve attended business lunches with peers who like to talk about all the ways they’re “nice” to their staff. “I always make sure to greet everyone with a smile,” one CEO proudly shared. Yet, friendliness and being polite don’t hold the same value as being kind.
I know this because since building my startup over 10 years ago, I’ve found that it’s a daily practice of kindness that has held my company together.
Kindness means care in action
Nice will only get you so far in building a positive work culture. When you’re nice, you can come across as charming and affable. But as Ahmed says, “Niceness…typically centers on pleasing others and being polite so as not to offend.”
Kindness on the other hand, involves actual interest and work. For me, that means not just listening to an employee telling me they’re struggling, but taking action to improve their situation. If they’re having a hard time with their mental health, I find ways to lessen their workload and encourage them to take some needed time off.
If I were simply “nice” I’d tell them I was sorry to hear what they were going through and leave it at that. No matter how you cut it: kindness is care. And it’s this specific quality that helps us evolve.
Why kindness leads to innovation
At my company, we end the week with regular Demo Days each Friday. Groups present a prototype they’ve been working on. And whether outlandish or buggy—they are never critiqued with harshness. In fact, because of this, we find teams enjoy some friendly competition. When people ask questions, it’s always in an encouraging and supportive tone. I believe it’s this graceful, caring attitude that’s helped us seize the kernels of genius that lead to greater innovation.
According to Ahmed’s research findings “organizations who put kindness ahead of profits have employees who are 120% more likely to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their current job, and 89% more likely to have a strong desire to think of new and innovative ideas.”
My 3 pillars of leading with kindness
1. Always opt for honesty over politeness
Here’s one of the biggest differences between kindness and niceness: the latter isn’t helpful. Telling a flailing employee they’re doing a good job when they aren’t or failing to give them the right guidance for improvement—isn’t kind, because it ultimately doesn’t address the underlying problems that need to be dealt with.
Note that I’m not saying you need to have a tense discussion that makes an employee feel diminished. Kindness is being honest in an assertive, caring way.
2. Don’t just listen, find solutions
A few months ago, I had a team member, Maggie, let me know she was struggling with feeling engaged while working from home. Had I been nice, I would have heard her out and told her not to worry about it. Instead, I set her up with a personal mentor and made new work policies related to Zoom meetings so that all employees—whether remote or in person—felt more included.
As I said before, kindness means being helpful, and that involves finding solutions.
3. Lead with empathy and compassion
Over the course of this pandemic, I’ve heard countless challenges my team has faced. Each person with their own unique set of circumstances. Some have experienced the unfathomable loss of loved ones or faced ongoing illness. Others have had caregiving responsibilities that created tension between their work and personal lives.
If there’s one thing I’d like to tell leaders, it’s this: niceness will not lay the solid foundation you need to keep your organization intact. “Leaders need to collect data on what employees really care about rather than assuming they already understand,” write Harvard Business Review contributors, Mark Mortensen and Heidi K. Gardner. And covid fatigue has everyone running on fumes, they add.
The challenge in front of us is to not get so caught up in running a tight ship that we forget the invaluable one-on-one time with individual team members. How else can we successfully lead if we’re not fostering connections? Or steadily building rapport? As the HBR researchers noted, “One-on-one conversations are ideal for understanding the complexity people face and conveying true compassion.”
This has been true for me. Kindness is a choice to actively care, to find solutions, and to show up time and time again even when things get hard. Because at the end of the day, it’s the glue holding everything together.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of Jotform, an online form builder.