How Important Is Kindness at Work? Experts Weigh In

Fostering a culture of kindness and empathy at work can have a big impact on your team's performance. We'll walk you through the science behind this idea and share 101 ways you can start making changes in your own workplace.

January 29, 2021

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Most of us would describe ourselves as kind. Kind enough, anyway. We’re kind to our patients or customers, to our friends, our boss, to management. We’re kind to a stranger who might be lost or confused. You may not realize it, but there are actually great health benefits to being kind: increased energy levels, feelings of calmness, lower blood pressure, less stress, and improved happiness. These are all proven benefits of acting kindly to others. But what about when it comes to your team at work? Should a boss prioritize kindness as part of their leadership style?

It turns out that good, strong leaders aren’t just organized, motivational, and clear communicators. Research shows they’re also kind and empathetic, setting the tone for their entire team and cultivating an atmosphere of positivity and success. This creates a sense of connection and belonging that can unite a team and strengthen the work you do.

Empathy vs. Kindness: What’s the Difference?

“I’m kind,” you think. “I care about my teammates.” That’s great. However, you don’t want to confuse empathy with kindness. As an empathetic leader, you’re able to relate to your team. You can view a situation from someone else’s perspective. But it’s your reaction that shows kindness. Dr. Renee Thompson, CEO and founder of the Healthy Workforce Institute, focuses on eliminating disruptive behaviors in the workplace -- behaviors like bullying, incivility, ignorance, and cruelty. Kindness and empathy go hand in hand to combat these behaviors, but Thompson helped explain the difference and importance of nurturing both. Empathy, she says, is the feeling you have naturally for another person. Kindness, however, is the action you take when you feel that empathy.

“Empathy really involves some type of connection that you have with another human being. There’s got to be some type of thought, some type of feeling, where you look at what somebody’s going through, and there’s this sort of right brain-left brain connection and you feel something for that other person,” Thompson says. “Kindness, I don’t have to think about it. I don’t have to intellectualize it. I can just be kind for the sake of being kind.”

Our brains are full of mirror neurons, which trigger specific feelings and sensations based on what’s happening around us -- including empathy. For example, you pass by a coworker eating their lunch in the breakroom, and your mirror neurons trigger hunger. You see an ASPCA commercial on TV, and your mirror neurons trigger sadness. Or say you see someone get hurt, and your mirror neurons trigger empathy. Our mirror neurons fire either when we act or when we observe an action performed by someone else. The neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, helping explain scientifically why we naturally feel empathy and are compelled to act with kindness when we see kindness being done.

As a leader, “you have to help people understand that the way they treat each other is just as important as the service you’re providing, the care you’re providing, and the product you’re producing,” Thompson says.

Because when it comes to your bottom line, kindness can help your team work more efficiently and sustainably.

The Benefits of Prioritizing Kindness at Work

A 2019 Forbes article discussed a study on how prioritizing kindness can create a ripple effect that can change the culture of the workplace.

Here’s what happened: University of California researchers told a group of coworkers that they were part of a kindness study. Select members of the group were deemed “givers” and told to perform random acts of kindness for the rest of the participants. The researchers checked back once a week for four weeks to find out what kindness they’d shown and received, as well as how it made each person feel.

At the end of the four weeks, all participants completed a job satisfaction survey, and it was clear that the acts of kindness had had a positive impact. Those who received kindness said that they felt a heightened sense of camaraderie with their team and were happier at work. But get this: The 19 “givers” reported higher levels of job AND life satisfaction, too. Based on the results of the study, the UC researchers concluded that random acts of kindness increased the “sense of well-being, autonomy, and competence” of both the givers and receivers.

The study also notably showed that random acts of kindness can be contagious. Throughout the experiment, the participants wanted to know who performed the kindness and became increasingly creative in how they returned it. This “thinking outside the box” had obvious positive effects on creativity in the workplace, all stemming from the idea that being kind can change the entire team’s culture.

The Importance of Being a Kind and Mindful Leader

The ability to be a kind and empathetic leader helps build trust and develop loyalty among your team members. Erin Urban, an author and career growth strategist, says that if you’re able to show kindness while leading, it can be a strength.

“It takes a long time to build trust, but only seconds to destroy it,” Urban says. Thompson agrees: by being intentionally and assertively kind, she explains, you can:

  • Stop a negative person from continuing their negativity.
  • Bring out positive qualities in others.
  • Start a chain of kindness.
  • Increase your team's motivation.
  • Create a sense of unity.
  • Build trust.
  • Improve employee retention.
  • Meet and exceed goals.

That all sounds great, but how do you actually go about doing it? To help you out, the Center for Creative Leadership put together a list of four main ways managers can show empathy in the workplace:

  1. Watch for signs of burnout in your team.
  2. Show real interest in understanding the needs and goals of your individual team members.
  3. Be willing to help a team member with personal problems.
  4. Show compassion for team members’ personal issues.

Additionally, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation provides leaders with seven steps they can take to establish a culture of kindness and empathy in the workplace, which will help ensure that your team wants to show up and do their best work. Workplace leaders should:

  1. Set a tone. What do we expect from others? If you expect your workplace to be a supportive, communicative, and compassionate environment, the leader should be the first to display those qualities.
  2. Model behavior. What behavior do you want to see in your team?
  3. Create a safe and supportive environment. Does your team have a safe space for open dialogue? How can you meet each teammate where they are?
  4. Have a “strengths, mistakes and growth” mindset. Find your team members’ strengths, allow for mistakes, and look for growth.
  5. Work on trust, boundaries, and belonging. Set boundaries for yourself and your team so you’re not micromanaging them. It will also help you build trust in them and encourage them to learn to trust you as a leader.
  6. Perfect communication and collaboration. This will maximize productivity.
  7. Celebrate. Always be looking for ways to celebrate your team’s wins, both as a collective unit and as individuals.

101 Ways to Be Kind at Work

Everyone, including team leads, can change the culture of a workplace for the better with just a little kindness. We asked our experts and crowd-sourced numerous professionals on Facebook for their thoughts on what makes kindness work at work. Here’s a list of 101 ways to use kindness as a way to motivate and support your team:

48 Ways to Be a Kind Leader

  1. Set clear expectations.
  2. Give honest feedback.
  3. Encourage career growth.
  4. Be transparent in decision-making.
  5. Remember that people are human and make mistakes.
  6. Remember that people have responsibilities outside of work.
  7. Treat each team member with the same level of respect.
  8. Check in on someone who is having a bad day.
  9. Thank someone for doing their job.
  10. Admit your own mistakes.
  11. Compliment good work.
  12. Give praise in front of the team.
  13. Provide clear steps on how to make work better.
  14. Lighten someone’s load.
  15. Encourage your team to take breaks for exercise or mental well-being.
  16. Organize mental health breaks.
  17. Remember birthdays.
  18. Highlight something good at the beginning of each meeting.
  19. Value people’s time.
  20. Stay late to support someone.
  21. Arrive early to support someone.
  22. Check in on someone if you know they're going through a tough time.
  23. Practice active listening.
  24. Ask for feedback on your own work and management style.
  25. Encourage others to lead.
  26. Celebrate milestone moments.
  27. Be honest about someone’s growth and potential.
  28. Suggest specific ways someone can improve their work habits.
  29. Celebrate acts of kindness among teammates.
  30. Bring in coffee, snacks, lunch for the team.
  31. Start emails with compliments.
  32. Know the names of your team’s key family members/pets.
  33. Take time to personally introduce new team members to each member of the team.
  34. Know your staff’s career goals and dreams.
  35. Set goals to help your staff reach their professional aspirations.
  36. Be patient.
  37. Make sure your team is able to be active in their family’s lives.
  38. Encourage your team to take advantage of professional development opportunities.
  39. Set up ways the team can learn about other careers within the organization.
  40. Make sure everyone is aware of the top risks in their field, and how to prevent them.
  41. Encourage junior team members to shadow big projects and lead small ones.
  42. Allow someone to help you.
  43. Be an advocate for your team members.
  44. Provide extra support when people seem overwhelmed.
  45. Make your workplace available for a few career shadowing opportunities.
  46. Make your personal office available for people to have a private conversation or call (when needed).
  47. Help organize and prioritize work.
  48. Pair up team members as “Accountability Partners” to help each other reach personal career goals.

36 Ways to Be a Kind Teammate

Not a team leader? Here are some ideas for both big and small ways you can foster a culture of kindness among your teammates.

  1. Greet people with a smile.
  2. Invite someone for a walk.
  3. Dedicate a dimly lit space for the team to use for quiet time, naps, or meditation.
  4. Allow someone to vent without trying to “fix” it.
  5. Keep a public snack basket fully stocked at your desk.
  6. Organize and participate in Zoom happy hours.
  7. Bring someone coffee.
  8. Be a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) ally.
  9. Stand up to and report bad teammate behavior.
  10. Take lunch breaks with the team.
  11. Engage your coworkers in meaningful conversations.
  12. Leave encouraging notes on people's desks.
  13. Plan a chat with other teammates where you only share good news and words of support.
  14. Bake treats and bring it in for the whole office.
  15. Create a kindness bulletin board where people compliment each other.
  16. Stop by a team member’s desk to catch up on their life.
  17. Help a coworker learn or practice a new skill.
  18. Ask for a teammate’s ideas or advice to show that you value their opinion.
  19. Write a “thank you” card, just because.
  20. Help someone out if they look like they’re struggling to carry something.
  21. Offer help on a project that’s not your own.
  22. Give a genuine compliment.
  23. Become a mentor to a junior teammate.
  24. Offer to clean the office kitchen or supply closet.
  25. Coordinate potluck lunches with the team.
  26. Be patient with people.
  27. Cheer someone up who is having a bad day.
  28. Make sure no one gets left out of after-work outings (or anything that might appear “cliquey”).
  29. Give someone who uses public transportation a ride home on a rainy day.
  30. Stop office rumor and gossip in its tracks.
  31. Support coworkers’ side gigs by buying their product or sharing their posts on social media.
  32. Donate to a team member’s favorite cause.
  33. Explain that you’re having a bad day.
  34. Write a letter of reference for a coworker who’s moving on to new career opportunities.
  35. Place fresh flowers where everyone can see them.
  36. Ask how someone is doing and stay for a real answer.

17 Ways to Be Kind to Patients, Clients, & Customers

When it comes to spreading kindness among your patients or clients, you may want to consider "reading the room" before you spring into action. What works for one person might not be appreciated by another, so use your discretion when implementing the strategies we list below.

  1. Practice good eye contact.
  2. Make a point of learning their names.
  3. Be motivational.
  4. Suggest ways you can improve their comfort.
  5. Have a used book recycling station.
  6. Provide water and healthy snacks, whenever possible.
  7. Engage them in meaningful conversation.
  8. Ask important questions.
  9. Refer to their goals when trying a new strategy.
  10. Don’t let them see your stress or anger.
  11. Bring something that reminds you of them (and lets them know you’re thinking of them).
  12. Remember things about them.
  13. Give them a genuine compliment.
  14. Give someone the benefit of the doubt.
  15. Tell a funny story.
  16. Be proactive and intuitive to their needs.
  17. Ask for feedback -- and apply the suggestions that work for you.

At the end of the day, being kind doesn't hurt anybody. In fact, your team's effectiveness and cohesiveness will likely improve, as will your personal health. So, go ahead: print out this list and start implementing some of the strategies we've shared with you. Show your team that kindness is a workplace skill that should be prioritized.


Image courtesy of iStock.com/StockRocket


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Berxi™ or Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company. This article (subject to change without notice) is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute professional advice.

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