September 2, 2021

Why Kindness Matters

Picture of two kids sharing an icecream

My Grandmother was a key part of my life growing up. In fact, I lived with her until I was 11 years old. Grandparents often seem to have a Yoda-type quality. They come out with little sayings when you are dealing with problems. And my Gran was famous for little sayings. One saying that she would use on a regular basis was, “Be kind today, it is free”. I was always struck by the connection between value and kindness that my Gran would use. As a kid I remember thinking, of course, it is free and you do not get anything from it. Not like comics, candy, footy stickers. They cost money because you get something. But actually, my Gran was sharing something that is fundamental about kindness. It is free, and you do get something in return!  

Kindness is a hugely valuable thing that when you are kind can benefit you, the team, and actually the endeavor you are on. When dealing with complex problems and working with people, kindness can be the glue that helps you not only survive the experience but also flourish. Oh, and we have scientific data to support it! 

First, let’s remind ourselves what context agility works within. Agility is a response to complicated, sometimes complex situations where we have more unknowns than knowns. And things change. Maybe that is because our understanding is changing as we learn about the problem, or the world is really changing as we try and deliver a solution. In the case of Scrum (and honestly most situations) a team of people is working together on something and trying to deliver on some sort of goal (quick shout out to the Product Goal). Ok, I can see many people thinking of mission control on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Lots of tension, shouting, anger, and someone taking control. But actually, most high-performing teams’ leadership is distributed. Yes, there are decision-makers, but everyone is contributing, everyone is part of the solution. When Google studied their high-performance teams they found that psychological safety was a major contributing factor and much more important than where the team members went to school or how smart they were (I am sure all of the team members had super high IQs as well). But psychological safety is influenced by many factors but especially trust. Trust and physiological safety are not the same things, but they contribute to each other. A high amount of physiological safety leads to trust and vice versa. 

High-performing teams benefit greatly from being in an environment that is psychologically safe. But is kindness required to build that safety? 

Let’s look into what kindness is and what it is not. The Oxford dictionary defines kindness as “the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate.” So, kindness is actually 3 things. 

  1. Friendly - caring about people.
  2. Generous - giving more than is expected. 
  3. Considerate - considering the impact on others. 

Kindness is often confused with being nice. And of course, the words can be used interchangeably, but I like to think of being nice as a focus on the pleasantness of the environment rather than the impact and outcomes on the people. It seems that niceness is a baseline to being kind because without a pleasant environment it is very difficult to believe that the person cares about you, is giving something more, or is considering the impact on others. Of course, there are situations where this is not true. For example, in situations that require rapid action. But those situations still often require a discussion afterward to explain why you were “not very nice”, otherwise the environment will continue to be toxic or “not nice”. 

Interestingly there is a physical impact of being kind with the release of Oxytocin, Dopamine, and Serotonin. Oxytocin is described as the “love hormone” with it playing a key role in the creation of bonds between people and how they trust one another. Dopamine provides the body with a nice high from being kind, thus encouraging us to do it again. And, Serotonin calms our mood which in turn allows us to be more creative and imaginative. It is true that high-stress situations can make you do amazing things, but those things tend to be associated with running away or fighting things rather than solving a complex problem or working with a team. Now I know why my exam results were always lower than I expected, but also why I could write quicker in those horrid exam halls! So, kindness helps create trust, and gets the mind ready to do creative work, and is addictive. That sounds like the perfect combination for a Scrum Team that thrives on psychological safety.  And I am not the only one that thinks that.

Bill Taylor in his HBR article “Making Kindness a Core Tenet of your Company” describes kindness as contagious, creating unknown impacts as it infects more and more individuals. Bill discusses a key transformation at Mercedes-Benz USA and how they found that improved business outcomes for their service and sales organization were actually tied to the level of kindness shown as customers encountered many different people that represented the brand. That case study reminded me of retail chain Trader Joe’s and how they built a great brand through employee engagement, which in turn resulted in customer satisfaction. I remember an example of an employee spending over an hour with a customer to find a particular product. That generosity (one element of kindness) resulted in a feeling of kindness and resulted in Trader Joe’s is one of the most profitable stores in America. 

We also have many role models or even heroes that are famously not kind. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are famous for being not very nice or kind. But you can not argue that their organizations delivered amazing products in spite of their personalities. Sara Sabin talks about this in her article “A counterintuitive approach to business success? Being kind”. She cites Jim Stengel’s work on tracking 50 companies that valued kindness and how they ultimately outperformed the S&P 500 by over 400%. She goes on to describe how innovation is connected to kindness and highlights the relationship between trust, safety, and kindness. 

I guess at the end of the day there are very few Musks and Jobs, so the rest of us need to work together to solve hard problems and deliver amazing results. And as the problems become more and more complex requiring more diverse teams, the value of kindness is only increasing in importance. 

So, maybe my Gran was onto something. Be kind… It is after all free but can give you amazing returns :-)