Kindness is not a word we hear a lot in today’s over-busy workplaces. Wellbeing is up there as a concept, but I’m not sure it resonates with many people. It’s a word a bit like sustainability – easy to rattle on about but highly open to interpretation.
So I wonder if ‘kindness’ is a simpler, more tangible, and better-understood word to work with. And in my view, it’s a powerful business tool.
I’m going to look at three business phenomena – meetings, conflict, and workload – and see how kindness can be put to work.
But just before we dive in to the practical applications, let’s pause for a moment to explore what goes on in the brain’s 85 billion neurons. These cells link up to make sense of the world, connecting along neural pathways. Information from several parts of the brain such as visual, olefactory, aural etc combine with memory to help us identify that x is an x. Ah, that hard cold grey (metal) and soft squidgy (foam) padded thing under my bum is…a chair. So far so good. All our problems, yes all of them, are due to this process of recognition, and the consequent learned reaction we have to things.
So what, you ask. Well the point is that we filter out 99% of the information available to us. This filter is in the thalamus, in association with other brain areas. There is a relationship between what we consider to be important (watching the movie) and what we judge to be irrelevant (person behind us eating popcorn), so the noise of the popcorn gets filtered out.
Intentional focus changes what gets filtered. ‘Having an intention to perform an action increases the activation of its declarative representation in memory’ say Goschke and Kuhl (1993). Simple. Intend to be kind, and opportunities for kindness will appear in your consciousness. So now we can start using this. Here are three things to try (what have you got to lose?).
Meetings. At the start of a good meeting (IMHO) several things get set out – length of meeting, objective, protocols such as listen fully, confidentiality etc. Try adding this: ‘In this meeting we will be kind to each other’. The communication will change.
Conflict. When communication breaks down, or our values and analysis cannot be resolved against someone else’s, we can get into conflict. We put up our defences and behave, probably, at our worst. So try this next time: just think ‘kindness’, to yourself and to the other person. It can make a huge difference.
Workload. Many, many people feel that demand is higher than they can cope with (a definition of stress). We can feel bad if we don’t get everything done, or done well. So if kindness was a reference point, how would it change things? First we might recognise our good intention to do what we can, but then we might also have compassion for this human being (me) and do what’s possible. We might negotiate with those making demands, with the insight that they too have pressures and therefore they deserve kindness.
One further suggestion: at the start of the day, in a quiet moment, just make the commitment that, for example ‘today I will be kind whenever I can’. Say it aloud, three times. See what happens. Say it now and see what it feels like. PS, you’re allowed to smile.