Throughout the course of the pandemic, New Zealand was often revered as the nation to follow as a result of its expeditious and efficient response to the COVID-19 crisis; its success due in no small part to the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Her style of leadership has garnered worldwide attention as well as acclaim over the last few years due to its focus on empathy and compassion. From jumping on Facebook Live on the first night of the nationwide lockdown to “check in” on citizens and offer both reassurance and guidance regarding the emerging crisis, to taking a 20 percent pay cut to stand in solidarity with those struggling financially during the pandemic, Ardern embodied the roles of both comforter and counselor for her constituents, roles that leadership scholars say are essential for crisis leaders to perform in order to effectively communicate institutional messages, implement efficient organizational strategies, and influence attitudes and behaviors.
As a result of her approach, an April 2020 poll found that 88 percent of New Zealanders said they trusted the government to make the right decisions, and 84 percent approved of the government’s actions. Her performance corresponds with growing research that suggests that not only do people value warmth, care, and affection from their leaders above strength, agency, or competency, but that leaders who exhibit vulnerability and humility are found to be more successful than those who rely on prowess or credentials—findings that extend beyond the scope of politics or crisis management.
How this Applies to Employers
Even in the workplace, employees want leaders who speak and relate to their values, beliefs, and emotions. A recent report from Engage2Excel found that the five behaviors that employees want their employers to exhibit the most include providing support and consideration; demonstrating recognition; treating employees with dignity and respect; providing employees with clear expectations; and rewarding performance; further, it concluded that 83 percent of a manager’s effectiveness score is measured by the extent to which he or she demonstrates these desired behaviors. Social psychologists have found that these behaviors are held in higher regard compared to attributes like strength and competency because they reveal the attitudes leaders have towards their employees, thus establishing trust, connection, communication, and cooperation.
Ultimately, what these findings indicate is that strong interpersonal relationships with employees are key to effective leadership, and these relationships can only be formed when leaders exhibit genuine compassion and care for others in a way that is true to themselves, their employees, and their organization’s values. Oftentimes, this genuine care and concern for others requires acting with honesty, transparency, generosity, and benevolence—all practices of kindness—that demonstrates that employees are seen, heard, understood, and valued. Without these feelings of appreciation and inclusion, a recent study from Ernst & Young found that 31% of employees would look for a new job, while Engage2Excel’s 2022 Job Seeker Survey Report found that 24 percent of prospective employees would not accept a job opportunity if they perceived a lack of recognition, appreciation, and respect from leadership.
On the other hand, however, leaders who cultivate and participate in an inclusive, benevolent workplace culture have been found to increase retention and satisfaction in their employees. In a survey conducted by Deloitte, 80 percent of employees reported that they feel happy at work when senior leadership acts in accordance with their organization’s core values and beliefs, while 85 percent reported feeling valued. This comes as Glassdoor reports that more than 53 percent of employees would stay at their jobs longer if they were shown more appreciation from their leaders—signaling that kind leadership is imperative to the overall coherence, and thus performance and longevity of an organization.
How Kindness Promotes Employee Wellbeing
Kindness in the workplace isn’t just a want, it’s a physiological need. According to the theory of self-determination, people are motivated to grow and change when they have access to three psychological needs—namely, a sense of belonging, a sense of autonomy, and a sense of capability. Research has shown that responses to kindness—such as expressing gratitude and practicing optimism—satisfy these needs, as people feel more connected to their benefactors, feel validated for their behavior, and thus feel more competent and autonomous. Further, good-natured relationships—especially with leaders—allow employees to derive purpose and meaning from their work, exert control over their lives, and feel confident in their abilities to learn and perform by strengthening access to psychosocial resources including social networks, social capital, and social support.1
Without these resources, people lose their ability to comprehend, manage, and cope with life and work-related stressors, which increases their risk of stress and exposes them to a host of mental and physical health problems. According to Gallup, employees who say they are often treated unfairly at work are 2.3 times more likely to experience high levels of burnout, a syndrome linked to emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, as well as immunosuppression, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and premature mortality.2 In addition, loneliness has been found to affect mortality more than obesity, and is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.3 Consequently, Gallup also reports that employees experiencing burnout are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day, and 23 percent more likely to visit the emergency room.
Conversely, positive interpersonal connection has long been associated with decreased mortality and markers of better health; social support—particularly, manager support—has been linked to a 50 percent reduced risk of early mortality by buffering stress and promoting resilience, and Gallup has found that employees who say that they feel supported by leadership are about 70 percent less likely to experience burnout. In addition to preventing burnout, decades of research have also found that supportive workplace bonds contribute to lowered heart rate and blood pressure, boost the immune system, and strengthen the neuroendocrine system.4
Even witnessing other people engage in kind acts can improve health and promote feelings of happiness. This type of happiness—eudaimonia—is recognized as an uplifted feeling of elevation, and can manifest as physical sensations including warmth in the chest and alertness, and has been shown to reduce amygdala activation—otherwise known as the fight or flight response.5 As a result of its impact on stress and disease, positive psychologists have endorsed the use eudaimonia as a potential tool to prevent illness and injury, therefore making kindness an impactful workplace intervention to strengthen employee health and wellbeing.6
How Kindness Promotes Organizational Success
In addition to improving employee health and promoting feelings of happiness, studies have linked virtuous acts like courtesy, generosity, kindness, and praise to increased productivity and efficiency, as well as lower turnover rates.7 A recent study from the University of Warwick found a direct link between happiness and productivity, citing that happy people are 10 to 12 percent more productive at work than unhappy people.8 One reason for this is that happiness has been found to improve creativity; increased connection and respect between employees have also been linked to a 26 percent increase in energy and 44 percent increase in commitment to their organizations.9 Conversely, fear, depression, and social exclusion have been proven to increase aggression, hostility, and disengagement, negatively affecting performance and disrupting the culture of the workplace.10
These factors also pose considerable threats to the overall efficiency and longevity of an organization. A toxic workplace is the number one reason driving the Great Resignation, as one study found that 70 percent of employees surveyed reported that they would be extremely likely to leave as a result of a disrespectful or toxic leader, and another survey found that even witnessing discrimination in the workplace makes employees twice as likely to intend to seek employment elsewhere than those who have not witnessed or experienced it. Further, Gallup reports that employees who feel excluded or who believe they are not adequately recognized by leaders are twice as likely to quit in the next year. This surge in resignations is costly for employers: averaging around 33% of a worker’s annual salary to replace employees when they leave.
But the solution is simple, practical, and cost-effective: by practicing kindness, employers can not only improve productivity, they can also save money. According to one report, by investing as little as one percent of payroll on employee appreciation, 85 percent of organizations noticed a significant improvement in employee engagement and performance, and further research found that practicing kindness can also improve retention, as employees who feel valued at work are found to be more loyal to their organization, and are less likely to leave, resulting in highly-motivated, attentive, and cooperative employees, and a better-run organization.
Kindness as a Social Contagion
Another benefit to using kindness as a leadership strategy is that its impact extends beyond the direct recipients of a given act, catching and spreading through various chains of people until all are positively impacted. Researchers at the University of California Riverside found that when people are the recipients of generous acts, not only do they feel happier but they also feel inspired to return the favor, as their study showed that receivers paid their acts of kindness forward with 278 percent more prosocial behaviors than their benefactors. In addition, the study also found that this chain of kindness fostered a sense of camaraderie and connectedness among coworkers, leading to higher self-reported feelings of happiness, competence, and control which further inspired participants to spontaneously and voluntarily act kindly toward others. Thus, kindness becomes a never-ending cycle, making it an easy yet effective way for leaders to positively connect with employees and establish an inclusive and serviceable workplace culture.
How to Lead with Kindness
Ultimately, employers who lead with kindness pay attention to what their employees need and want from them; they form connections with them, they try to relate to them, encourage them, listen to them, educate them, and celebrate them. They express and act on genuine care for others, prioritizing their relationships with their employees, and in doing so establish and maintain a collaborative and inclusive workplace. While decision-making, budgeting, and risk-management are still crucial aspects of leadership, employers can elevate these strategies by strengthening interpersonal skills and by factoring in employee interests when making any decision or taking any action. The key thing to keep in mind after making the commitment to leading with kindness is that even the smallest acts of generosity or consideration can make all the difference for employees. Below are some examples of simple yet impactful ways to lead with and inspire kindness in the workplace:
- Candid Communication. One of the easiest ways for leaders to practice kindness in the workplace is to be more mindful about how they speak to employees. Especially when managing difficult situations or touchy subjects in the workplace, honest and transparent communication reinforces trust; assures employees that they are valued and respected and that their employers are there for them no matter what; and contributes to a more unified workplace. Another simple act of kindness that goes a long way is taking the time to make sure that what is being said is truthful, helpful, ethical, necessary, and considerate. Open and honest communication is an asset for employees as it improves their access to social capital—that is, shared group resources—that allow them to grow and thrive in the workplace. These resources can include emotional support needed to cope with and manage workplace stressors or to celebrate cultures and identities, like organization-wide messages of solidarity with LGBTQ+ employees during Pride Month; and instrumental support needed in order to reach one’s full potential both within and beyond the workplace, like referrals to counseling centers or health and fitness facilities. Regardless of what is being said, leaders can communicate with kindness by being mindful of what words will harm leaders, and by paying attention to what employees want or need to know and hear from their employers.
- Accessible Leadership. Another trend that was revealed in the same Deloitte survey mentioned earlier is that employers and their employees are not in agreement on what factors have the biggest impact on workplace culture: While employers ranked financial performance and competitive compensation among the highest, employees ranked candid communication, employee recognition, and access to leadership as the highest—with financial performance and compensation ranking the lowest. One of the most common ways to promote accessible leadership in the workplace is by adopting an open-door policy, and while most employers are already familiar with the idea or have already implemented one, many are unfamiliar with how to effectively execute one.
For context, the idea of an open-door policy is that leaders’ doors are open to all employees, encouraging communication, feedback, collaboration, and relationship building. Having an open-door policy is a great way to communicate to employees that they are heard and valued—but waiting for employees to take the initiative to come to employers can be ineffective as well as counterproductive. Instead, leaders can execute these policies with kindness and consideration by regularly inviting employees to make use of this one-on-one time, and by making these interactions count. In order to maximize the benefits of this policy, employers can make an effort to actively listen to their employees, or listening to understand them. This requires employers to provide their full attention to what their employees are saying by asking open-ended questions to better understand what is being said, keep the dialog going, and to reassure employees that they are being listened to; avoiding interruptions, distractions, or multitasking that will discourage employees from continuing on or from taking advantage of the policy in the future; and exhibiting patience, compassion, and empathy, to assure employees that their offices are a safe space free from judgment.
- Friendlier Onboarding. According to the 2022 Job Seeker Survey Report, kind leadership has a significant influence on prospective employees’ decision to accept or reject a job offer. Among 1,516 individuals surveyed, 32 percent cited recognition, appreciation, and respect as their top reasons for acceptance—beating compensation (21 percent) and job fit (17 percent)—while 24 percent cited a lack of recognition, appreciation, and respect as the top reasons for rejection—above concerns about job security, job fit, and compensation. Additionally, having a positive experience with the hiring manager and executives during onboarding was cited as most important to respective employees, making it important for employers to extend their good-natured and inclusive workplace culture to the onboarding process as well.
In order to ensure a positive onboarding experience, managers can implement supportive communication strategies similar to the ones mentioned above, as well as active listening strategies to indicate that there is a willingness to get to know, understand, and support prospective employees. Additionally, recruiters and hiring managers should look for ways to further uplift and empower newcomers by offering kind words of praise or recognition. According to the survey report, 79 percent of those surveyed said it is very important to be praised and recognized during onboarding, 74 percent said the same about the time between a job offer and the first day on the job, and 71 percent also cited praise and recognition to be important before receiving an offer—all which have risen exponentially since 2019.
Another statistic that has changed between now and 2019 is the percentage of candidates who say that their onboarding experience will significantly influence their decision to stay with the organization for longer than a month, rising from 62 percent in 2019 to 74 percent in 2022—making kindness an essential strategy to implement in order to elevate candidates’ experiences. One way to execute kindness as part of the onboarding process, as the survey revealed, is to offer gifts to candidates, as 67 percent now say that this would greatly influence their acceptance decision, up from 39 percent in 2019. Some gift ideas include workplace essentials such as pens, planners, and notebooks, or merchandise such as coffee mugs, water bottles, t-shirts, or bumper stickers.
- Stronger Investment in Employees. In addition to a lack of recognition, a lack of opportunities for career development and advancement has been regarded as another major contributor to the Great Resignation; employees are no longer tolerant of dead-end jobs that do not invest in or care about their futures. But just as poor investment is driving employees away, recent data indicates that by improving investment in employees’ professional development, employers can increase retention rates and prevent further turnover, as a recent LinkedIn report found that 94 percent of surveyed employees say that if their organization invested in helping them learn, they would stay longer.
Investing in employee growth is a timely way to practice kindness in a changed workplace as employees return to work with new values, beliefs, goals, and desires—with learning new skills chief among them—as it communicates to employees that they are understood and valued. As workers grow weary of digital training and skills courses, employers can pivot to workplace strategies that foster collaborative development, such as one-to-one or one-to-many mentoring programs. Another way to show compassion and consideration for current values shared by employees is to invest in DEI programs and initiatives, including reverse mentoring programs, diversity training, and employee resource groups (ERGS). Ultimately, leaders can practice kindness by investing more time and energy into their employees’ development to indicate that they care about their personal success as much as their organization’s success.
- Regimented Employee Recognition. Finding ways to praise employees for their work is perhaps the most impactful way to spread kindness in the workplace as recognition is a fundamental human need, providing social support and instilling a sense of belonging in one’s employees. By rewarding and celebrating behaviors, performance, talents, or attitudes, leaders indicate that employees are not only valued but are essential to the overall success of their organization, which in turn promotes better wellbeing and engagement as employees feel a better sense of purpose and competence. According to O.C. Tanner, employees who are adequately recognized are 33 percent more likely to be proactively innovative and work at 80 percent capacity or higher, and likely to generate twice as many new ideas per month—just a snapshot of the positive impact that recognition strategies can have on employees.
In order to practice consistent employee recognition, employers should consider awarding milestones such as job anniversaries, meeting certain goals or consistently meeting goals and deadlines, as well as rewarding breakthroughs in the workplace such as when employees speak up, are asked for advice or turned to for support, manage a tough situation or complete a hard task, and help others. Some ideas for ways employers can effectively praise the hard work of their employees include surprising them with gifts such as merchandise, gift cards, cash prizes, flower arrangements, travel or event tickets, and free meals. Employers should also be sure to explicitly express gratitude, appreciation, or praise for their employees through verbal “thank yous”, personalized notes, private or organization-wide emails and memos, plaques, and certificates, that clearly state what achievements are being celebrated to ensure that employees feel like their progress matters, and that these displays of appreciation are not just formalities.
During times of widespread instability such as these, plagued with political controversies, environmental disasters, and a global economic crisis, employees are now more than ever in need of leaders who can speak to and meet their emotional and social needs for kindness, empathy, compassion, and understanding. Leaders who practice kindness in the workplace encourage their employees to believe that any challenge is surmountable, any problem is solvable, and that employees can always count on having the full support of their employers. By fostering strong, positive connections with employees as well as between employees, leaders can establish a united workplace better equipped to achieve the organization’s goals and overall mission while simultaneously promoting the individual growth and success of their employees, which is what kindness is all about: supporting others.