Kindness Is Our Business
More companies are discovering that being kind feels good--and pays off.
At my daughter’s pre-school there is a “kindness jar.” When students are caught in the act of performing a good deed, they are allowed to drop a small plastic gem into the jar. When it’s full, the teachers organize a “kindness party,” featuring various themes, each one unique and special. The last party was the very popular wear-your-pajamas-to-school-day—my daughter is still raving about it.
Luckily, kindness isn’t a value that is celebrated only in an educational sphere, nor is it limited to interactions among friends and strangers. Kindness has also recently found its way (back) into business. Trendspotters saw first signs of kindness as a trend(link is external) as early as 2012, but it has now reached workplace and customer experiences at broader scale. This may be in response to the excessive winner-takes-all-mentality exhibited by some Silicon Valley companies, which has reignited the debate over the importance of company values. Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks, said at a recent reception in New York that values must be inscribed early on in a company’s culture because it is hard to insert or correct them later (see Uber). Jessica Lawrence(link is external), the executive director of the New York Tech Meet-Up, more specifically had the following advice for start-ups: “Kindness is the new disruption.”
Big acts of kindness
Kindness takes two forms in business: big decisions and micro-interactions. Big decisions are the sweeping gestures that have an impact on large swaths of people and make a splash. One recent example is that of Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments in Seattle, who caused a media stir when he announced(link is external) his plan to raise the minimum salary at the company to $70,000, from an average(link is external) of $48,000.
While money may not buy happiness(link is external), a lack of it can profoundly affect one’s ability to experience it in a meaningful, sustainable way. In an interview(link is external) Price said, “If you’re a little bit below what it takes to scrape by, that can be distracting from that passion, from that purpose that you have for what you do.” He also cited a study(link is external) which concluded that emotional well-being can increase with income, though not above $75,000. In order to implement the new average salary at his company, he elected to take a drastic cut in his own pay.
Price’s move stands in stark contrast to the ubiquitous and increasing wage gap(link is external)between C-level salaries and those of the average employee, and it comes with business benefits. Not only does the wage gap have any positive effect on improving a firm’s bottom line, as James Surowiecki(link is external) pointed out in The New Yorker, consumers also prefer to buy from brands whose values they share(link is external). Nearly ninety percent of consumers in the US believe that companies should value the interests of society at least as much as strict business interests.
So is Price’s decision a smart business move? Yes, but that is an added bonus. At the core of his decision is the choice to prioritize his employees’ well-being above the bottom line. This doesn’t mean the bottom line isn’t important—we are talking about a business after all—it just means that Price has proven that a business model can flex to make room for a radical act of kindness that also happens to make good business sense.
Small acts of kindness
Small acts of kindness, on the other hand, occur as micro-interactions on a more individual scale, yet they’re equally powerful. They don’t just make detectable differences in the lives of those with whom we work—they also have the power to make a significant impact on our own lives.
Author George Saunders’ incredibly moving commencement speech(link is external) to the 2013 graduating class of Syracuse University offered up sage and funny advice, while articulating a resounding thesis: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Considering we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, we have more of an opportunity to empower others, and ourselves, through kind deeds, rather than stick stolidly in our own small circle of self-centeredness. We don’t have to take Saunders at his word—what feels better?
Clearly, acts of kindness don’t have to be sweeping or groundbreaking to make a difference—and they don’t even have to take much time. Amy Wilkinson(link is external) has written about Robert Langer, a highly respected bioengineer and professor at MIT, who is highly sought after, and very busy. But he generously grants meetings to those seeking his feedback—in intervals of 15 minutes. He responds to emails with a couple sentences at most. Langer doesn’t use the excuse of a busy day to forgo micro acts of kindness. Neither should we.
While professionalism and civility are expected standards, initiating genuine human connection with our colleagues or customers seems to go a step beyond. This is why we view acts of kindness in business as rather remarkable when we bear witness to them. What if the world of work as we knew it were filled with so much kindness that gestures rooted in it were considered completely unremarkable?
Against the culture of Big Me
“Nice is the new cool,” CMO.com(link is external) claimed earlier this year, referring to initiatives such asSmall Business Saturday(link is external) and Giving Tuesday(link is external). But nice is not the same as kind. One can be nice without being kind, and vice versa. Niceness wants to please, while kindness is rooted in giving—even if it’s just the gift of delight. In a day full of stressors and deadlines a little delight can go a long way.
More and more companies are activating the power of kindness in their customer experiences, linking their brands to a greater cause that people easily relate to—and makes them feel good. What started with the Suspended Coffee(link is external) movement in Italy (“A suspended coffee is the advance purchase of a cup of coffee for someone who needs it, no matter why”) has inspired pay-it-forward acts of kindness worldwide—such as the unplanned, now-legendary Starbucks drive-through story(link is external).
Retailer L.L. Bean’s intentionally generous return policy overwhelms its customer with kindness, expecting nothing in return: “It was a pleasure to be in business with you.” Airbnb recently introduced “Random Acts of Hospitality(link is external)” to “create an unexpected smile,” even pledging one million dollars(link is external) to users—$10 each—to apply to acts of kindness. Suggestions included buying a cup of coffee for a few strangers, or purchasing gardening supplies for a local community garden. Taking a cue from chocolatier Anthon Berg’s Generous Store(link is external) in Copenhagen, McDonalds(link is external) allowed hugs as payment on Valentine’s Day—“Pay with Lovin’.”
Not only does the kindness of strangers have a profound impact on our levels ofhappiness, as research(link is external) has shown, it is also inherently viral. A 2010 study(link is external) showed that “recipients of generosity were much more likely to be generous in future exchanges,” and “when one person gave a dollar to a stranger in the experiment, the effect rippled into subsequent interactions.”
As Saunders concluded his commencement speech(link is external), he told graduates, “Your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now.” Kindness, he said, is the antidote to the streak of selfishness, the culture of Big Me that snakes through us. “Seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.” It’s great advice for all of us, no matter our current station.
Kindness is more than a trend—it has become a business fundamental that powerfully shapes every level in business. Kindness engages our hearts and minds, even as it makes the most sense for the bottom line.
This article first appeared on Psychology Today.