May 30, 2020 by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas
Do you feel surrounded by strong opinions that are interpreted in hundreds of different ways? Are you feeling and/or expressing righteous indignation when people do not acknowledge the rightness of your thinking? Or, have you been the victim of someone else’s “truth”?
How can so many people be so right and so many people be so wrong?
A good time to rethink the past is following a major shift of the ground we stand on. It is then that we are more willing to look back and see the impact of our collective thinking and actions that got us to the current state. We are more able to question the assumptions that have guided our daily actions and see the blind spots and shortcomings of the past. This can free us up to look for powerful new options and advantages for a better, healthier future. Let’s face it – right now we could all use a kinder, gentler way forward.
As we each reflect on all the learnings from the past few months, and consider what changes we want to incorporate into our future and what traditions we want to get back to, let’s think long and hard about this topic of truth and how it impacts our humanity. This may be uncomfortable for some, so hang on tight….
Many of our personal ideas, feelings and beliefs about important things such as love, politics, freedom, justice and beauty (just to name a few) are impacted by our personal experiences and the culture we’ve been exposed to. And, as a result of this, we think our truth (our view of the facts and reality) is the truth and we vigorously defend it. Before you know it, you defend until you “win.” Living purposefully, in fact, is about choosing to do things based on this inner sense of rightness, wholeness, truth. It is intentional and keeps us steady in times of uncertainty.
It’s not “truth” that’s the problem, however. There is a virus in our midst – the virus is an ugly negativity that insists that my truth is more important than you. When defending our truth is more important than extending kindness to the people impacted by this truth, we are prioritizing our ideology over people, even when there’s no doubt about our rightness.
So, what exactly are we talking about when we use the word “kindness”? We are referring to the quality of being friendly, gracious, understanding, and considerate. It is aided by a sense of curiosity and the ability to understand the feelings of others. It can be as simple as a smile, a laugh, or a courteous gesture. Kindness touches the human spirit even when there are opposing views. It is restorative and transformational. Demonstrating kindness does not imply that we must accept or adopt someone else’s viewpoint. It simply means we take the time to invest in, be considerate of, appreciate, and/or recognize the person behind the views. Actually – it can be as simple as listening with kindness.
This topic is more important than ever as we experience a decline in the mental health of Americans. The Washington Post (May 26, 2020) recently reported that one-third of Americans (surveyed from May 7-12 of this year via the US Census Bureau) expressed signs of clinical depression and/or anxiety as a result of the pandemic – more than doubling since the 2014 survey (Fowers and William). And, on the employment front even prior to the pandemic, Gallup research (2017) determined that unhappy workers cost the U.S. between $450 and $550 billion in lost productivity each year. Their research also showed that managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores. In other words, managers significantly impact the environment of their team and their team’s commitment to achieve the organization’s goals.
While leaders cannot mitigate the full impact of a pandemic, they can set the tone in their organizations. The norms and expectations perpetuated in each and every one of their interactions influence the behaviors of others. When people are treated kindly and feel valued, they are more willing to invest, contribute, and engage. It’s a healthy antidote to an ugly virus or “stupid gone viral.”
Often times, organizational cultures and management structures get in the way of employee’s perceived welfare. Every organization has an implied or understood way of being, or culture, that is the learned way of coping with external tasks and dealing with internal relationships (Schein, 2004). Leaders have a significant influence on the culture through their everyday actions, interactions, and inactions. These are played out through the culturally-sensitive management mechanisms in place, to include: 1) what leaders pay attention to; 2) how leaders react to crucial incidents and crises; 3) how leaders allocate resources, rewards, incentives, and recognition; 4) how leaders select, promote, and punish; and 5) what leaders role model. Each of these areas give individuals the opportunity to interject a kinder, more thoughtful, way of leading. Quite frankly, too often when employees see leaders reject this model, they find a safe place to hide until the next leader comes along.
Piero Ferrucci, a psychotherapist, philosopher, and author of the book The Power of Kindness (2007) suggests we try an experiment during an ordinary life situation that demonstrates the power of simple acts of kindness. The situation could be riding in an Uber, buying groceries, or managing through one of the organizational mechanisms identified above. Start with exchanging a few words, making eye contact, or striking up a conversation. This is easier for some than others. What’s important is to do it and be fully present in the brief contact and expect the other person to be as well. Dr. Ferrucci states: “Suddenly a change occurs: Something becomes unblocked and energy circulates. It might not be an encounter of two souls. But, it surely will be an exchange of vital energy between two people.”
Now let’s approach this experiment through a lens of rightness. You are in an Uber headed to the airport. You know the way because you’ve been there multiple times. You also know your way is the best way. The Uber driver puts on his left-turn signal and you quickly let him know he’s going the wrong way. He pushes back. You confront him again, tell him he’s wrong, and to go your way. Whether he does or does not follow your rightness at this point is irrelevant. Negative energy is expended – he’s mad, you’re mad, and there goes his tip.
This rightness scenario plays out in similar ways when leaders act out of a position of privilege, superiority, or extra specialness – putting themselves above other humans by virtue of their role. Sound familiar? Rather than treat others as valued human beings, they are treated as if they are a sub-species. Acts of kindness are reserved for those who will benefit them. People feel devalued and disrespected and negative energy saturates the workplace – actually, it sucks the life out of you, your team, and the organization.
Moving from acts of rightness to acts of kindness starts with being kind to yourself – understanding that you cannot trust yourself to be perfect or the best at everything, knowing you can’t trust yourself to always succeed, or never cause harm and hurt. You first must learn to give yourself grace and kindness (if you need permission – permission granted!). Rather than trusting in your perfection, you learn to trust in your disciplined effort to know yourself better, to include your triggers, habits, strengths, and weaknesses. When you are able to recognize your own humanity, to include your imperfections, you are better able to get yourself out of the way (Wheatley, 2017). Kindness shines to others through this humility – not because they are from the same tribe, or of the same thinking, and not out of self-interest, calculated generosity, or superficial etiquette. But, rather, because we are able to see their humanity and recognize our humanity in them. Now, this is a beautiful thing!
Leaders who humble themselves can be the antidote for the virus of rightness over kindness – whether at home, in organizations, or communities. Kindness begets kindness.
Whew – this was a bit heavy! How about a “Titter Time” to lighten the load.
Titter Time: Right? or Left?
“I just finally discovered what’s wrong with my brain: on the left side there is nothing right, and on the right side there is nothing left!”
Ferrucci, P. (2006). The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life. New York: Penguin Group.
Fowers, A. & Wan, W. (2020, May 26). A third of Americans now show signs of clinical anxiety or depression. Washington Post. Accessed 5/29/20 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/05/26/americans-with-depression-anxiety-pandemic/?arc404=true
Gallup (2017). State of the American Workplace. Washington DC: Gallup.
Schein, E. (2004). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wheatley, M. (2017). Who Do We Choose to Be: Facing Reality Claiming Leadership Restoring Sanity. Oakland CA: Berrett-Koehler.