PM Articles > Kimberly Wiefling > Kindness: An Essential Skill When Working with Humans

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Kindness: An Essential Skill When Working with Humans

Somehow working with thousands of non-native English speakers from around the world over the past seven years has caused me to become a kinder person. Something about watching an accomplished senior professional struggle to express a simple business concept fills me with a desire to treat them gently. Perhaps it's because their lack of fluency reminds me how vulnerable they are, or of the innocence that they possessed as a child. Or it might be that their language difficulties make it impossible to speak with the affectation and disdain that I so despise in some of my Silicon Valley colleagues. Even if I perceive some hubris in their speaking, I'm likely to attribute it to their limited facility with English rather than a loathsome personality disorder.

Whatever the reason, over the years I've been inspired to treat people at work with a bit more tenderness. It's not that I demand less of my collaborators, it's just that I'm more compassionate in how I go about getting my ridiculously high expectations met. I suppose I've developed a greater sensitivity to the impact human beings have on one another in the workplace because of experiences like the one I had recently in Tokyo. I was facilitating the last day of the final workshop of a six-month global leadership development program, and the participants were giving each other feedback on their strengths. Afterwards, while reflecting on this exercise, one guy (let's call him Diego), said that this was the first time anyone had pointed out his strengths to him. Diego is almost 40 years old, with at least 15 years of work experience. How on earth could he have gone through his entire career without a single person pointing out some of the many fine qualities that make him an asset in the business world? I just about burst into tears thinking about it. To me this goes way beyond a failure of the all-important "attitude of gratitude." It's just outright unkind! And, as numerous studies have shown, the negative business impact surely must have been substantial.

Talk of Kindness at Work Used to Make Me Wretch

Okay, okay, I'll admit that I'm not the nicest person on Planet Earth. According to the quiz based on Dr. Bob Sutton's The No Asshole Rule, courageously hosted by Guy Kawawsaki, I'm 12.5% nasty – and that's on a good day, when not jet-lagged. Kindness? I used to practically wretch when I heard the song "Hands" (video), in particular the part where the singer croons, "In the end, only kindness matters." I'd laugh sardonically as I tried to imagine how kindness could possibly matter more than reaching this month's manufacturing shipping target or hitting the next project milestone. But over the past few years, I've come to appreciate the power in the business world of being kind as well as scrappy.

Maybe my change of heart is due to the many incredible acts of kindness that I have experienced at the hands of workshop attendees from over 20 different countries. First, there's the frequent practice of gift giving. In Asia, I've frequently received presents when I reconnect with people I've worked with in the past. Gift-giving can be done out of a sense of obligation, but the ones I've received are usually incredibly thoughtful. One leadership program graduate from Singapore presented me with a colorful makeup purse, saying "I chose this exciting color to match your personality!" Another brought me some pepper. It was "just pepper," I know, but she described in detail how she remembered that I loved the taste of this particular pepper when I last visited Osaka. During my first trip to Thailand, an admiring former workshop participant who was too busy to meet me in person dropped off a beautifully wrapped gift at my hotel to welcome me to her home country.

And then there are the countless times a complete stranger has helped me survive my travels to unfamiliar lands. Once, another women staying at my "no frills" hotel saw me struggling with a lot of luggage and offered to help me to my room. On a different occasion, a construction worker in the Tokyo subway temporarily put aside his job and insisted on carrying my (very large and heavy) bags up the stairs because the escalator was out of service. And one complete stranger, upon seeing my obvious confusion while staring at a map of the city, personally walked me to my nearby hotel.

Each time I've experienced these random acts of kindness I've felt very moved. Why would complete strangers go to such lengths for me? One of my cynical friends said they were just pretending to be nice, but I don't think so. Genuine kindness differs from being polite, tactful, or diplomatic, in that it is devoid of pretense or affectation. I now realize that it benefits the person who bestows a kindness at least as much as it benefits the recipient, which is perhaps the best reason to practice kindness.

What Was the Impact to Diego of Not Knowing His Strengths?

When Diego made his heart-wrenching revelation, I suddenly glimpsed what he must have been like as a playful young boy, splashing in puddles and reveling in the carefree joys of life before the world crushed his spirit. I imagined how, over the years, every molecule of self-esteem had gradually drained away from him, sapped by years of criticism uninterrupted by even a single positive comment. How many dozens -- even hundreds -- of people must have been in a position to point out one or two of his many admirable attributes over the years? But no one had. At least not that he could remember. What a pity!

Throughout the day, I pondered the statistical improbability that Diego had lived so many years without anyone pointing out his gifts and talents. Surely he just wasn't paying attention, right? Maybe his low self-esteem prevented him from hearing and accepting the many positive words that dozens of people must have communicated to him. Perhaps he was blind to the kindness surrounding him?

It's unlikely. The sad fact is that there are many barriers to simple, and largely effortless, acts of kindness such as praise. Overcoming obstacles like these would magically alleviate an enormous amount of the needless suffering occurring in the business environment:

  • "I'm in a hurry!" -- Yeah, well, everyone's busy, but, really, how much time does it actually take to say "Gosh, Diego, you really have a gift for bringing a team together around a shared task, and making working together fun!"?
  • "I'm too shy!" -- Stop selfishly focusing on how you feel and think about how other people feel for a change. Then do something nice that's unexpected.
  • "I might be misinterpreted." -- Yes, it's true, you might not want to go to the extremes that I have, which includes bringing fresh flowers to our customer relationship managers after a particularly demanding client meeting, or taking a nerdy engineer out shopping for stylish clothing that could help him attract a mate (it worked). But bringing a cup of hot tea to a busy colleague, or mentioning your appreciation of your coworker's talent for creating high-impact PowerPoint presentations, probably won't cause any raised eyebrows.
  • "It's not my job." -- You're right. I've only seen "kindness" in one job description, and that was for an organization called Think Kindness. Kindness might even be too touchy-feely for some companies to talk about, but at least one CEO says that he encourages his employees to be kind to one another.
  • "They're just doing their job." -- Yup, so was my mother, when she changed my diaper, cooked my dinner, assured I'd brushed my teeth, and taught me the importance in our US culture of shaving my legs. But I still (eventually) thanked her for putting up with me, and not launching me into outer space when she'd had it with me. She seemed genuinely moved, albeit somewhat confused by the fact that it took me 45 years to express my appreciation.
  • "I'd feel uncomfortable." -- When I hear anyone using this as a reason for not doing something that clearly should be done I throw up my hands and start ranting about the ridiculousness of using our comfort as a standard for what we need to do as leaders. As a leader, we can't afford the luxury of using our comfort zone as a guide to our actions.

Although there are many other qualities that I value in effective project leaders, kindness is becoming a higher priority for me as I learn more about the keys to unlocking human potential. Research has proven that the most effective way to improve performance is to increase a person's self-assurance. Marcus Buckingham, in the book The One Thing You Need to Know, specifically states that "The best state of mind to promote if you want to encourage someone to be successful is a fully realistic assessment of the difficulty of the challenge ahead of him, and, at the same time, an unrealistically optimistic belief in his ability to overcome it." And Professor Robert Caldini's famous six principles of influence include reciprocity, a tendency we have as humans to treat others as they treat us, so at the very least we ought to be kind for purely selfish reasons.
It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'try to be a little kinder'.

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World

Like Aldous Huxley, I'm embarrassed to admit how long it has taken me to comprehend the importance of kindness, and how essential it is for any endeavor involving more than one human being. In fact, I'm starting to believe that one could build an entire career based on a simple strategy of being kind to others -- although probably not in project management -- at least not as long as people insist on ignoring their action items until a pointy-toed-boot is rammed up their ass!

OK, I've CLEARLY got some more work to do, but don't give up on me! Let's practice kindness in the project environment this week. Here are a few practical ways to do that:

  • Write personal notes to each of your teammates telling them which of their strengths you most appreciate in the current project. (Yes, you have to find something nice to say to each person, even the moron who drives you crazy. And make sure it's sincere!)
  • Next time someone on your team makes an obvious mistake say something like "Oh, yes, that's unfortunate, but I've done much more boneheaded things, and we can learn something valuable from this."
  • Be like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory and bring a hot beverage to a busy teammate's desk.

Let's all implement the sage advice of the eighth verse of the Tao this week. Do some experiments and share additional ideas, and your results, here. I'm definitely looking forward to learning from you, and my colleagues are eager for my rapid improvement!

- Kimberly

Kimberly Wiefling is the author of Scrappy Project Management, published in Japanese, and the executive editor of the whole series of 5 "Scrappy Guides." Her favorite is Scrappy Women in Business, a collection of the stories of a dozen scrappy businesswomen. She works primarily with globalizing Japanese businesses, traveling extensively in the US, Europe and Asia.

©Copyright 2001-2013 Wiefling Consulting. All Rights Reserved.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Very kind of you to write about this ;-)

I love this article - I've worked with too many project managers that feel that being HARD gets things accomplished. I even refused to work with one project manager because I refused to be that hard on people, and yes I do gets things accomplished - with honey and not vinegar

Wonderful article that reminds us of the fundamentals of teamwork and respect. It can be helpful in many areas of project management and socializing a vision.

This is a brilliant article Kimberly. I am trying to show kindness to my colleagues more by being there for them rather than worrying about my own needs all the time. Like you I struggle, but when I succeed it does indeed make me feel more fulfilled than at any other time in my job. By the way, I really appreciate your gift for addressing issues we have with some good old-fashioned sensible solutions but also for admitting your limits as well. May we all struggle and succeed together!

I have a display in my living room which I bought at the Wembley Stadium many years ago - simply reads: 'No act of kindness is ever wasted.' That is so true. Even if the recipient does not react to your kindness with love, you have done your bit. Just move on and be happy with your own attitude.

Thank you for this article. I am in the people business and my guiding philosophy has and will always be: "If I cannot help you, I will ensure I will not hurt you". I have walked away from deals requiring me to hurt or cheat knowingly. I am glad that a current employment situation ended when ownership wanted me to be nasty than kind - their belief was that people perform under pressure, never acknowledge their good and thereby have them constantly over extended. I have seen that Compassion and kindness bring results that are self sustaining and long lasting. Thanks again. Best wishes.

Very good article about how we interact at work. it seems that people don't really have the patience to be kind. Good reminder that kindness can also bring greatness in people.

Dalai Lama on compassion

What a wonderful surprise to visit this column and read all of your lovely (and KIND!) comments. Thank you so much! I really love hearing your thoughts about this article as I have wrestled so much with this topic myself.

I strongly believe that better results can be achieved by respecting and supporting people. I strongly believe that this results in them contributing their very best!

Here's a quote I found today that is aligned with our conversation about this: "Kindness is a language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see." – Mark Twain

May we all have the courage to be kind even when we want to bonk people's heads together!

Here's a beautiful video that goes far beyond my simple article. I hope you'll all take time to view it:

Dear Kimberly,
It was a pleasure reading your article. As I am reading it, I start to feel someone is reaching out inside of me. It may make me happy and joyful. Finally someone can hear and see my pain. Yes, indeed, my supervisor constantly credited others for the work I did or she just belittle what ever I've done. She even was able to turn people against me for not been a brown noise. in today's society, the liar is trusted and the truthful is rejected because he/she doesn't fit politically. I think I went out of the topic. Any way, Thank you so much and i will hang your article next to my desk. Thank again

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