When we think about the holiday season, kindness is typically included somewhere in the equation. Kindness can be displayed to others through compassion, engaging in kind acts, and even showing kindness to ourselves during a time that can be emotionally and financially taxing. I recently came across the term “strategic kindness” which sparked my interest and curiosity, especially during this time of year, but also the way it fits with how we show up in work and business.
During the holiday season, charitable acts and donations increase. Performing kind acts generally comes along with the holiday territory and may include activities such as feeding the homeless, collecting for a toy drive, or donating winter clothing to provide warmth during cold weather. Kindness is a way to show love and connection. It’s also fair to say that during a time of giving back, our kindness may be more strategic given the widespread opportunities to engage and align ourselves with causes that are important to us.
But that’s okay, right? Kindness is an age-old virtue, so intentionally helping and bringing happiness to others during the holidays or any time of year is definitely a valuable contribution to the world around us. Doing so makes us feel good as well. Kindness is a powerful force that can result in dual rewards for those engaging from a healthy place of altruism.
The same goes for how we show up in work and business with kindness. Kindness is many times a display of our own personal values. Kindness may also be incorporated into our organization’s values too. This is where it can get tricky. When are we acting from a place of sincerity and when do we act out of obligation or self-interest? In other words, what are our psychological motives? Based on my experience, most of the time, even those engaging in kindness from a place of obligation or self-interest at work aren’t doing so with malice. They typically do so from a place of self-preservation or to receive affirmation and reward. I dare to say that every one of us has been kind in moments we didn’t feel like it, but chose to do so to gain approval, maintain the status quo, or because some way or somehow the extrinsic payoff in the moment seemed to trump the intrinsic consequence. The challenge with this behavior is if we consistently engage in careless kindness at work, the concept can lose meaning and result in long-lasting consequences.
Perhaps the determining factor in identifying our psychological motives for being kind can be to recognize if we are acting from a place of genuine kindness or simply being nice. Being nice has a ring to it and is defined as being pleasing, agreeable, and delightful. This sounds just like how our parents expected us to behave as children. Ever since we were kids, most of us were told we better be nice or there would be some sort of implied consequence. Even to this day, when I encounter someone in a professional setting with challenges collaborating, I may say, “They need to learn how to play nice in the sandbox.” In other words, unless they are getting their way or desired outcome, you can forget about them being nice, much less kind.
Strategically incorporating kindness into our day-to-day activities and problem-solving is an amazing and thoughtful way to capture the powerful force that helps and brings happiness to others. A great example of this is a senior executive’s experience with American Airlines when running late for a flight. In a nutshell, the AA rep got very creative in helping the gentleman, which resulted in him making the flight and shining a positive light on a then-struggling airline. The key to the rep’s kindness in this situation is that she didn’t have to help the customer to the degree she did. She was not obligated to and would have been perfectly justified simply being nice and assisting the customer within standard parameters. So, what made her act with an elevated degree of kindness? Her kindness likely originated from her own personal values that she was successfully able to display on behalf of not only herself but her organization.
Strategic kindness in its synthetic form can be considered the equivalent of being nice when it is surface-level, forced, people-pleasing, or self-serving. Strategic kindness, in its authentic form, is genuine, deliberate, and meaningful.
A few questions to ask yourself to determine if you are engaging in niceness or kindness at work:
- Is communication rooted in convenience, or is there a willingness to get uncomfortable?
- What are the motivations for engaging?
- Is there a feeling of resentment after engaging with certain people or in specific situations?
Kindness should be the ultimate goal, but this doesn’t mean that niceness and kindness can’t co-exist. In fact, they may need to in some professional or complex dynamics. So, if you find yourself being nice, certainly don’t beat yourself up. If you find yourself being nice more than kind, do a little digging and ask yourself why that may be. It could indicate that you are not in the best professional space aligned with who you are at this point in your career. Finding yourself top-heavy in niceness may also impact your performance, ability to build a meaningful network, or advance in your career.