It’s early November 2019 and Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, has just delivered a headline-making speech as the country’s parliament passes a zero-carbon plan. Jacinda has argued vehemently for the profitability of battling climate change: “New Zealand will not be a slow follower,” she says. “We have the potential here to lead the way and to instil a higher value to our products in doing so. We have the ability to be the world’s most sustainable food producers and to sell the innovation and technology that comes with developing that much-needed research and technology.”
Meanwhile, in Australia, the country looks towards a leader who brought a lump of coal into parliament to present the economic benefits of fossil fuels — the dominant cause of global warming.
The point is, while compassion is often lost amid maniacal profit-seeking, kindness and capitalism are not mutually exclusive. In the arenas of politics and business, compassion, and its close relative kindness, are often considered to be unnecessary fluff. They might be the subject of a training day from the folk in HR, but they’re certainly not worthy of discussion in the boardroom.
Kindness, dictates the conventional wisdom, is not a matter for serious businesspeople. They speak the language of performance and ambition, hashed out via zero-sum thinking and bottom-line perspectives. Kindness is seen as nostalgic throwback, or worse, a con.
But this thinking represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what compassion is and the role it plays in the rubrics of success. “One of the difficulties around compassion is that a lot of people misunderstand what it really is,” says James Kirby, a clinical psychologist and director of the Compassionate Mind Research Group at the University of Queensland. “Compassion is simply about being sensitive to suffering and then doing something to alleviate it. That can come with terrific courage,” he says.
In an increasingly fractured world, where hate crimes are on the rise and the state of our planet is in decline, kindness offers us a compass: a way of being that points us toward promoting diversity, fostering connection and cooperation, breaking down conflict, boosting resilience and healing our planet.
Persistent adages such as “it’s not personal, it’s business …” underscore the idea that empathy and self-reflection disrupt the drumbeat of economics. But the fact is, business is personal. The bottom line might be quantitative and cold, but it is people who drive it.
Ingredients of success
Consider the ingredients of success. According to the Harvard Business Review, the most successful teams are those who exist within a supportive context and have a shared mindset. This means businesses must create environments that help people work at their best; they must be able to reinforce good performance, offer training and assistance, and create a culture that nurtures a collective sense of purpose.
“Kindness is often eroded for the sake of individual advancement,” says James, “but when a group feels a good sense of safeness, kindness emerges.” Underpinning this sense of safeness is the ability for people to look out for one another, against the norms of one-upmanship and competitiveness that are often cultivated in workplaces that rely solely on traditional carrot-and-stick methods.
Creativity and innovation flourish when leaders make space for connection, diversity and support. At its heart, innovation is about connections, not individuals, and kindness breeds connections.
“Being kind towards another takes the focus off the self and orients you outwards,” says James. “Rather than staying focussed on your own self-doubt and worries, you start to create an open awareness and attention, which can cause a huge physiological shift within you because all your attention and behaviours are directed outwards.”
In pooling emotional energy and cultural capital, the collective brain is able to deliver much more than the individual one. Trust fuels these interconnections and kindness builds trust. According to James, kindness has a cascade effect: “You’re three to five times more likely to be kind to another person after you receive kindness from someone else” he says.
In other words, kindness solidifies the network of people around us and encourages the cross-fertilisation of ideas in doing so. The critical nexus between kindness and success is that solutions to complex problems typically require multiple perspectives. If you want to have big ideas and cool technology, it is better to be promote kindness than smarts.
This thinking extends to self-compassion. We live in a culture that reveres self-confidence and promotes a “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality. And no wonder; we’re not very good at differentiating between displays of confidence and signs of competence. You don’t have to look further than many of the world’s political leaders to realise we commonly misinterpret confidence for competence.
As Argentinian psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic points out, “When it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.”
But self-compassion offers a way of being that allows for imperfections. It isn’t about letting yourself off the hook, but adopting a growth mindset. Without the pressure to be perfect, it’s easier to accept feedback and criticism. Viewing your flaws in a more objective light is an effective motivator; it’s much easier to learn and improve when you can acknowledge your shortcomings and frame them in kindness.
Faking confidence is easy. Learning to be kind to yourself takes considerably more effort. This is often true of kindness and compassion, which, as James says, take tremendous courage. Giving people what they need and prioritising others’ emotional needs over your own can sometimes be the hardest course of action to take.
That’s not to say leaders should overlook mistakes or tolerate endless poor performance so as not to hurt feelings. Issues ignored affect business metrics as much as lack of kindness. It’s when we combine directness, clarity and compassion that we create a culture in which people can truly thrive.
Charlie Hale is an English-born journalist based in Sydney, where she writes about a plethora of things women care about — from pasta to politics and everything between. Charlie is also the acting editor of WILD and WellBeing magazines.