Be Kind, Not Nice – Part Two

In part one, we left Karen* and Charlie* at a crossroads. Karen was uncertain how to proceed. I invited her to “be kind, not nice”.

Kind (adj.) is defined as, “Having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature.” And its noun form as, “A group of people or things having similar characteristics.” I like to think of kindness as compassionate behavior that stems from recognition of our shared human experience.

Kind is honest.

As discussed in an earlier post, research shows that honesty is the most desired quality in leaders across time, cultures and economic sectors. We want our leaders to tell us the truth and trust that we are emotional adults who can handle it. Kind leaders believe that people are creative, resourceful and whole.

Karen met with Charlie to discuss what was needed from him in his new job. She invited him into an honest conversation about where he saw his strengths and opportunities, and shared her observations and questions. There were gaps between their perceptions. Some of her feedback was uncomfortable for Charlie but she never backed off or tried to “make it nice” for him. At the end of their meeting Charlie genuinely thanked Karen for the conversation. He expressed gratitude and relief. “For a long time I’ve felt like there’s something off,” he said. “Thank you for having the courage to tell me the truth and trusting that I’m a big enough person to hear it.”

Kind is compassionate.

Kind leaders recognize our shared humanity. We all have hopes, dreams and aspirations. We all have fears, blind spots and coping strategies. We are all precious and imperfect. Kind leaders are patient and tolerant. They walk in the shoes of others, curious about new perspectives. They trust others’ resourcefulness and offer support. They believe we are all on the same side, even when we disagree.

Before their meeting, we did a visualization to help Karen imagine what it might be like to receive the performance feedback she was about to deliver to Charlie. She realized it might be very uncomfortable, and sat quietly in reflection for a time so she could come to the meeting fully present. Even during moments when Charlie became emotional, Karen maintained a grounded, open presence. His tears were difficult for her to witness, but she knew that creating space for emotional expression was an important step toward building trust in their relationship and honestly exploring Charlie’s job possibilities. She shared a brief story about a work situation in which she had struggled with shame, and how the lessons learned from that had helped shape her as a leader. Charlie was surprised by Karen’s transparency and thanked her for “being so human.”

Kind is curious.

Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Kind leaders listen without judgment, to learn and understand. Even when they have a strong point of view they elicit the ideas of others, because they know that genuine inquiry creates better engagement and outcomes. They ask powerful questions.

When first presented with Karen’s feedback, Charlie got defensive. Rather than arguing the rightness of her position, Karen stepped back and got curious. She asked questions about Charlie’s aspirations, his self-assessment of skills and behaviors, what he liked and didn’t like about his job, and how he felt as a part of the organization. Where their assessments disagreed, she asked, “What meaning can we make of this? How might we understand our different perceptions?” Her insistence on inquiry created connection in service of solving a problem, rather than the disconnection of “I’m right-you’re wrong”. At the end, Charlie paused and said, “There are some things I need to learn if I’m going to be successful here.” To which Karen replied, “How can I support you in that?”

Kind is accountable.

Kind leaders recognize and support each person’s contribution. They articulate outcomes and success criteria, create explicit agreements about deliverables, offer support, clear barriers, and then get out of the way. They review progress and ask powerful questions when agreements aren’t met.

At the end of their conversation, Charlie told Karen he wanted to earn his place in the group and was committed to making the changes necessary to do so. They agreed on action steps, timing, and development resources. But as Charlie began practicing new behaviors, he found his energy drained. He missed his own deadlines. When Karen asked him what was happening, he said, “I don’t know. My heart’s not in it, I guess.” She asked, “If you could have any job you want, would this be it?” “No!” he burst out, and then laughed. “I can’t believe I just told you that!” Karen laughed too, and said, “Well I’m glad you did because now we can explore what you really want to do.”

Karen helped Charlie see himself and his talents more clearly, and identify work that ignited his passion. A few months after joining Karen’s team he left the organization to start his own business. “I never thought I’d be doing this [work],” he said. “Without Karen’s leadership, I wouldn’t have had the courage or belief in myself to go for it.” Karen then filled Charlie’s position with a candidate who not only was qualified, but delighted with the opportunity.

Speaking of accountable, remember Charlie’s previous managers? Once Karen and Charlie were aligned, they invited them to a meeting. Without blame or judgment, Karen and Charlie shared the lessons they had learned as a result of integrating Charlie into the team. They then invited each of the other managers to share anything about their experience of performance management that could promote organizational learning. It was awkward at first, but once everyone realized the inquiry was genuinely in service of a greater good, Charlie’s prior managers participated enthusiastically. They felt “like a burden had been lifted”, “hopeful” and “a relief”. One of them privately apologized to Charlie and asked for his forgiveness, which he readily gave. Learning on many levels happened that day.

Kindness calls forth the best in ourselves and others. When kindness is a cornerstone of an organization’s culture, behaviors such as honesty, transparency, trust, creativity, innovation, accountability, and appropriate risk-taking all contribute to more robust employee engagement, productivity and results.

*All of the client examples I write about in this blog are fictional. There is no Karen and no Charlie. Everything that happens in this story did actually happen, but across many different clients in different organizations.


Laurel Callan


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