Practicing Kindness as a Leader—Six Simple Practices

by Connie Kelly

Several years ago I was facilitating Communico's Leading with Mastery program and my colleagues and I thought it would be enlightening to challenge the participants to practice random acts of kindness. In the midst of helping managers learn to shift their focus from managing to leading, it became clear that we wanted to help them connect kindness to leading.

Every morning of this fourday workshop, we asked the group for examples of how they practiced kindness the day before. The answers were interesting and inspiring. One woman made her own bed at the hotel and left a note for the housekeeping staff thanking them for their hard work. Another called a friend she knew was going through a hard time and said, “I'm calling to listen." One manager paid a bill for an acquaintance who was currently unemployed.

And so it went. Each morning we heard stories about simple acts of kindness like opening doors, carrying boxes, leaving behind magazines, sending notes, pitching in, listening deeply, and paying compliments. I often wonder if a change took place in any of these folks. Did they leave their week with us and continue to be kinder than necessary? Or, more likely, did they return to the routine of life forgetting about making an effort in the name of kindness?

I dare say, kindness isn't exactly the first thought in leadership mastery. Yet, studies show that employees work harder for leaders who demonstrate they care. According to Gallup Q12, a survey designed to measure employee engagement, the fourth most important thing to employees is, “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work." The fifth is, “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person."

It's easy to lose perspective when managers are struggling against tight deadlines and shrinking budgets, not to mention, the challenges associated with technology and working from home or in the field. I've had managers express frustration over their inability to connect with their associates in a meaningful way just because they seldom see them.

How then do managers practice kindness, let their employees know they care, and give them the recognition they so desperately want? Here are six simple ways to practice kindness in leadership:

1.  Say “thank you"—often.

I once had a manager who thanked each of us, her staff, every day as we left the office. At first, I was confused. I asked, “What did I do?" She said, “You put in a really good day today, and I appreciate it!" Managers have countless opportunities to recognize their employees' contributions. Don't miss these moments.

2.  Listen.

Too often, managers feel the need to have all the answers so they will think ahead, solve the problem, outline the follow up—all before the person is finished talking! This leads to over-dependence and problem-focused management. Lead by taking the time to truly listen to others. Given enough time and space, they will come to their own conclusions and solutions. Encourage your employees to think through issues with you. And, isn't it true that we all need to feel listened to?

3.  Encourage.

Be a cheerleader, of sorts. Let your employees know you've got their backs. If one of your employees is enrolled in school and taking classes after work, simply check in once in a while and ask, “How it's going?" Find out if there's something you can do to support them. Maybe they could use a little extra time at lunch to get some studying in. When they are working on a project with a particularly tight deadline, reassure them that you'll do what you can to help them meet that deadline. Be creative—leave a cupcake on their desk with a note saying, “Here's a little extra incentive—thanks for working so hard."

4.  Be candid.

The “hard" conversation is never tops on a manager's list of things to do. It isn't easy speaking frankly with an employee about his or her performance or when delivering bad news about changes in the organization. In fact, studies show that employees respond more positively when their leaders have been forthright with negative news. “Kindness," you say? Yes. By being candid in a caring and empathic way, you are demonstrating kindness.

5.  Build trust.

Practice kindness by building trust. This is the essence of leadership and it is built slowly, over time and on purpose. It's no secret that employees want their managers to be:     

  • Consistent—check your negative mood at the door, please
  • Open—no hidden agendas or half-truths
  • Reliable—keep confidences; don't gossip
  • Dependable—keep your promises

6.  Lighten up.

Smile, laugh, and share the joy! Work does not have to be all about the task. You and your employees spend the majority of your life working, so make it enjoyable. A manager in one of my MAGIC classes shared an example of how he boosts the morale of his staff. Every month, he has a cultural day. He celebrates the diversity of his staff with food, decorations, music, posters—it's always different. He said his employees look forward to the experience and try to guess what he'll come up with next. You don't have to be so elaborate—just sharing a laugh and encourage good humor goes a long way.

Kindness in leadership can be expressed in a multitude of moments. It's not a technique or a tool; rather it is a way of being. At first, you may have to plan your random acts of kindness—oxymoron, I know. Over time, though it will seep into your fabric and you will find yourself acting out of a place of goodwill. Mark Twain said, "Kindness is the one language we can all understand…even the blind can see it and the deaf can hear it." As leaders, we have a unique opportunity to create the space wherein trust, encouragement, growth, and success can thrive.

Connie Kelly is a Communico facilitator with over 30 years experience in helping others communicate more effectively through the spoken word and in writing.
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