Science Shows Why Kindness Is A Leadership Principle…

Science Shows Why Kindness Is A Leadership Principle

In a global climate of increasing complexity, competition, intolerance, and impatience, there has been a steady erosion of public trust in both public and private sector organizations and their leaders. At the same time, there are calls for a more responsible and respectful form of leadership in business and society, for leadership that fosters a sense of inclusion, connection, and belonging.

Employees and managers alike face unprecedented obstacles every day. As COVID-19 spread worldwide, a study by Mind Share Partners in partnership with Qualtrics and SAP found that 42 percent of respondents said their mental health had declined since the outbreak. Six months later, people’s anxiety, confusion, and despair are topics of near-daily reports in the news and on social media. Even if gestures of kindness and compassion were not woven into business as usual before the pandemic, they are essential now and going forward.

A surge in interest in kindness is likely the result of several developments. First, a wealth of converging scientific evidence has shown that empathy and altruism are innate, and emerge spontaneously in early childhood according to Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, writing in the British Journal of Psychology. Second, there has been the inexorable rise of ‘positive psychology’. And third – perhaps – the societal need to hear some good news. In the current political, economic, and environmental climate, having something like kindness to believe in is vital for keeping us positive and hopeful. All this is encouraging. Few people seriously doubt that kindness is a good thing (although there can be a lot of cynicism around it).

SEE ALSO: Finding A Common Ground

Some research on kindness

The Scottish Government values kindness so much that it included it in its National Performance Framework. The new framework outlines the purpose of the government. It also identifies outcomes all public institutions need to achieve. Their values statement is: “We are a society which treats all our people with kindness, dignity and compassion respects the rule of law, and acts in an open and transparent way.”

Penelop Campling’s publication, Intelligent Kindness: Reforming the Culture of Healthcare, summarize some of the evidence for the impact that kindness can have on our own brains. For example, in altruistic individuals, increased activity in the posterior superior temporal cortex has been reported (when compared with less altruistic individuals). Individual acts of kindness release both endorphins and oxytocin, and create new neural connections. The implications for such plasticity of the brain are that altruism and kindness become self-authenticating. In other words, kindness can become a self-reinforcing habit requiring less and less effort to exercise.

Kindness reaps great benefits for the giver. Research at Mayo Clinic shows that it can increase self-esteem, empathy, compassion, improve your mood and even help you live longer. Kindness can increase your sense of connectivity with others. It lessens loneliness and enhances relationships. Kindness can positively change your brain by increasing levels of dopamine and serotonin which give you pleasure, satisfaction, and a sense of well-being. When the recipient of your kindness responds and smiles, your brain increases the “love hormone” oxytocin that adds even more pleasure. These studies reinforce what we’ve heard since childhood—it can be better to give than to receive.

A recent study by Lee Roland and Oliver Scott Curry published in the Journal of Social Psychology reported on how people felt after performing or observing kind acts every day for seven days. Participants were randomly assigned to carry out at least one more kind act than usual for someone close to them, an acquaintance or stranger, or themselves, or to try to actively observe kind acts. Happiness was measured before and after the seven days of kindness. The researchers found that being kind to ourselves or to anyone else — yes, even a stranger — or actively observing kindness around us boosted happiness.

A study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion by UBC Clinical Psychology professor Dr. Lynn Alden and SFU SSHRC post-doctoral fellow Jennifer Trew suggests that performing acts of kindness might help lessen social anxiety. Alden said “We found that any kind act appeared to have the same benefit, even small gestures like opening a door for someone or saying “thanks” to the bus driver. Kindness didn’t need to involve money or time-consuming efforts, although some of our participants did do such things. Kindness didn’t even need to be “face to face”. For example, kind acts could include donating to a charity or putting a quarter in someone’s parking meter when you notice that it is blinking. Studies by other researchers suggest that it is important that the kind act is done for its own sake and that it not feel coerced or be done for personal benefit. Aside from that, anything goes.”

Kindness in leadership

To lead with kindness, we must have compassion, which provides employees with the sense of security that they need to perform; integrity, which means acting based on values, keeping promises, and combating biases; gratitude, meaning to appreciate others’ work; authenticity,

which means that leaders must show that they’re genuine; humility, which means remaining grounded and down-to-earth; and humor, which eases tension and boosts morale.

Ovul Sezer, Kelly Nault, and Nadav Klein writing in Harvard Business Review, argued that “Organizations benefit from actively fostering kindness. In workplaces where acts of kindness become the norm, the spillover effects can multiply fast. When people receive an act of kindness, they pay it back, research shows — and not just to the same person, but often to someone entirely new. This leads to a culture of generosity in an organization.” In their landmark study analyzing more than 3,500 business units with more than 50,000 individuals, researchers found that acts of courtesy, helping, and praise were related to core goals of organizations. Higher rates of these behaviors were predictive of productivity, efficiency, and lower turnover rates. They concluded, “When leaders and employees act kindly towards each other, they facilitate a culture of collaboration and innovation.”

Boris Groysberg and Susan Seligson writing in Harvard Business Review Working Knowledge say that “the pandemic has challenged managers as never before, but one powerful leadership strategy is being overlooked: Be kind.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is both forceful and compassionate, remarked that one of the criticisms she’s faced over the years is that “I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

Research released by Signature Consultants, a leading IT and professional staffing and solutions provider, uncovered a clear connection between the practice of kind leadership and a company’s ability to create an environment that facilitates and supports innovation. In fact, according to the groundbreaking Humankindex Survey of U.S. workers, leading with kindness is the most effective leadership style to drive innovation and competitive advantage in the marketplace.

How leaders can show more kindness

The pandemic is not a time for a stern, iron-fisted approach to leadership and management. The virus’s vast fallout demands a kinder, gentler approach. What can CEOs and managers do to infuse their leadership with kindness and empathy? Here are straightforward, effective ways to practice kindness as a matter of course:

“I hear you.” Really listen. Be fully present and don’t judge. Encourage employees’ questions and concerns. Listen actively—no side glances at the phone. “When someone shares that they’re struggling, you won’t always know what to say or do,” write Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Krol in Harvard Business Review. “What’s most important is to make space to hear how your team members are truly doing and to be compassionate. They may not want to share much detail, which is completely fine. Knowing that they can is what matters.”

“Are you okay?” Show a willingness to provide comfort and monitor for signs of distress such as social withdrawal and poor performance. Know when to refer an employee to get professional help.

“What can we do to help?” It may be as simple as validating an employee’s personal challenges during the pandemic. But being kind might also involve taking an active role in offering mental health resources or creating a virtual support group or sounding board.

“How are you managing these days?” According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, “some companies are creating deeper insights into the specific situations their workforces face by surveying home workers.” What they’ve found is that being single and working under quarantine alone carries a very different set of stresses than being a member of a working family with young children. For employees experiencing the pangs of social isolation, one company launched daily virtual coffee breaks. For those working while caring for children, leaders must be sensitive to issues of exhaustion and the difficulty of working during pre-pandemic office hours. “Leadership signaling that working unorthodox hours is okay could make a real difference to their stress levels,” according to the article.

“I’m here for you.” Let your employees know routinely that you are there for them when they need to share concerns or simply require a sympathetic, nonjudgmental ear. Consider making yourself available at times outside work hours; these are not normal times.

“I know you’re doing the best you can.” This statement is, with few exceptions, true. In scores of first-person accounts and on social media, people are reporting they are working harder than they did pre-COVID. This makes perfect sense; as layoffs and furloughs skyrocket, employees live in fear of losing their jobs. In times of crisis, bosses must alter their expectations. As Bryce Covert wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “Keeping output steady while maintaining our physical and mental health just cannot be done. We have to work less, and employers have to get on board.” Public schools are closed in a majority of states, most child care services have ceased operations, and a majority of couples with school-age children both have jobs. “These working parents are logging on after the kids are asleep and answering emails before they wake. Bosses must acknowledge how incredibly hard this has been.” But as Covert noted, “far too often, employers are acting as if little has changed. Their employees are responding to their expectations by working themselves even harder. Enough.”

Recognize, kindly. Celebrate the successes of others you work with. Global research, from the O.C. Tanner Institute, shows that when employees were asked what their boss or company could do to inspire them to strive for better results, recognition was, hands down, the number one answer. It was bigger than pay increases, promotions, training, and autonomy. Celebrating is kind.

Give feedback, kindly. A 10-year study by Harvard Business Review shows that the biggest reason second-rate executives don’t move up, is their inability to create trusting relationships. As leaders, sometimes we have to tell employees when they’re not meeting expectations. Critical conversations are tough, but can actually build trust, if their handled with kindness—meaning you actually have a desire to help an employee become their best, rather than just improving your numbers.


What would it do to our society if kindness became elevated in importance? It has been fashionable over the last few decades to devote oneself to pursuing ‘happiness’ and to becoming ‘mindful’ – this, so positive psychology says, is the route to a good life. But there has been a backlash against this individualistic and inward-focused approach to living. The real value in directing one’s attention to helping other people is perhaps that it gives meaning to life, in a way that self-attention never can.

The beauty of kindness is that it is open to anyone. We can all opt to choose kindness if we wish. It is free, easily accessible to rich and poor alike, and is universally understood. Thus, if it turns out that simple acts of everyday kindness can send ripple effects of wellbeing through society, then promoting and facilitating that has to be a constructive pursuit. And when leaders embrace kindness as a value and key behavior, the positive impact on the organization is powerful.


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Ray Williams


Ray Williams an Author and Executive Coach. He has written four books and published more than 300 articles on leadership…

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