ROK (Return On Kindness): It’s More Than Just Being Nice

Rodger Dean Duncan, Forbes Contributor

During 40 years of consulting and executive coaching, I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders. The ones who were world class, who produced consistently great results, had some characteristics in common—smarts, a sense of vision, a deep understanding of their business, willingness to make tough decisions. These are textbook qualities of great leadership. But one quality demonstrated by the best leaders I’ve known is seldom recognized: kindness.

Yes, kindness. Some people still seem to regard kindness as a nice-to-have-but-unnecessary personality trait. In fact, some prominent business people have been practically deified in their reputations for harsh and even barbarous treatment of others.

Finally, we have an opposing view. Business coach Jill Lublin has written The Profit of Kindness: How to Influence Others, Establish Trust, and Build Lasting Business Relationships. This is not a soft-and-cuddly treatise on good manners. It’s a guide to using kindness currency to get great results, loaded with specific examples of how and why kindness really works.

Rodger Dean Duncan: In a world of tough-minded executives, why do so many people still seem to reject the notion that it’s easier to attract flies with honey than with vinegar?

Jill Lublin: As Berny Dohrmann, founder of CEO Space International, puts it: “Competitive thought is the source of every problem in relationships.” We’ve been indoctrinated that if we don’t protect our turf, someone will invade it. Even the economy is based on competition. If you want to have more clients, sell more products or services, gain profits, you have to top any other business offering the same. Our end-goal inevitably becomes domination, monopoly. But the same network, CEO Space International, shows us that success can also be achieved through compassion and connection. In this network are executives who might be in the same line of businesses. But instead of stabbing each other in the back, they share their struggles and, in return, hear “I have a solution for you and it will save you time and money.” Through this collaboration, these people offer better customer experience that eventually leads them to profits.

Duncan: How can a person practice kindness so it becomes an automatic, default behavior?

Lublin: Kindness and good character go hand-in-hand. When you have good character, you possess the characteristics of kindness that let people know that you are caring, respectful, responsible, trustworthy, etc. Fred Kiel, founder of KRL International, published research that demonstrates how the moral principles of integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion produce life-affirming inner change. Make a conscious effort to tap these four as you act or decide. When communicating, ask yourself if you’re displaying integrity. Are you telling straight facts or are you misleading? When you have made an error, ask yourself if you are being responsible. Are you going to own and correct the mistake or are you going to blame somebody else? Practice touching the core of your humanity and not reacting impulsively. As you make it a habit, you will notice inner change gradually. Soon enough, it will be second nature.

Duncan: Attachment and engagement are essential to high performance in organizations. What role does kindness play?

Lublin: Workforce engagement is the outcome organizations achieve when they connect employees both professionally and emotionally with the organization, the people in it, and the work they do. And what does kindness do? Kindness produces positive social connections. Kind organizations have kind leaders who drive the flow of positivity within the workplace. Suzy Welch says leaders must serve as Chief Meaning Officers who show employees how their work connects with the company’s mission, and what’s in it for them. They keep people challenged, they give people their attention, they foster autonomy, and they set aside time for their team. With kindness around them, people feel appreciated and valued. They perform better and stay loyal. In one Gallup study engagement dropped to 2% among teams with neglectful managers. On the other hand, Businessolver, an employee benefits company, found that 33% of employees would change to more emphatic employers for equal pay while 20% would switch for less.

Duncan: Having “an attitude of gratitude” sounds like an empty cliché to some. But how does an atmosphere of gratitude inspire people to do better and be better?

Lublin: Lindon Crow, President of Productive Learning, once reminded me of the “spheres of influence.” We cannot influence without positivity. He says, “As a leader, the way in which I walk into the door has an ability of leaving a trail of carnage or a trail of inspiration and motivation.” By living out his own values, he believes that he can foster his employees’ mission of kindness, and, in turn, the employees will positively impact their clients. That will start a cycle of growth and the cycle of a currency of kindness. Gallup reported that 67% of employees are happier and more productive when managers focus on the positive aspects of their performance. It’s also an example of upstream reciprocity—people with a high propensity toward gratitude are likely to act in a similar helpful way both to their benefactors and to others.

Duncan: In today’s highly competitive business environment, “compassion” doesn’t seem to be a behavior at the top of many people’s to-do lists? What are they missing?

Lublin: A lot. For one, free advertising. Are you familiar with the viral story of Panera Bread? Brandon Cook’s grandmother wished for a clam chowder when she got hospitalized. Brandon called Panera Bread only to find out that they serve clam chowder only Fridays. Still, Brandon talked to the Store Manager, Susanne Fortier, who not only prepared the soup but also gave a box of cookies for Brandon’s grandma. That post garnered more than 500,000 “likes” and 22,000 comments. When genuine acts of compassion are seen, it’s hard not to be shared. This occurred back in 2012. Even today, it’s being shared. People will come across this, they will search for Panera Bread and, perhaps, visit their store. Without any effort, Panera Bread will gain another customer. No money, no strategy, just pure kindness.

Rodger Dean Duncan is the bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance.