Culture Work

Cultivate a Culture of Kindness at Work

by Deborah Hartung on November 13, 2018

Maya Angelou famously said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

We are all so busy and distracted, all the time. We have our eyes downcast and our noses buried in our smartphones. We hide behind the technology that was meant to bring us closer together and eliminate barriers, and somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost some of our most basic humanity and warmth. Not only have we mostly stopped doing things that bring a smile to people and make them feel good, we have started questioning the motives and intentions of someone who does something nice for us – that is, if we look up from our smartphones or take a break from our self-absorbed lives to even notice the kindness in the first place.

How very sad for us all. How tragic, that we are trading our heartfelt warmth for the dim glow of a smart device. Trading our hearts and all the things that truly make us ‘feeling’ beings, for the perceived safety and power of detachment and no-strings everything. How utterly catastrophic that we have become so spectacularly bad at saying how we feel or walking away from relationships, that ‘ghosting’ is an actual recognized term and perceived to be acceptable behaviour to some. Life is hard enough as it is already. There’s got to be a way for us to bring some kindness back into our world and our work. Here’s my two cents’ worth on the topic:

Kindness Matters

Just in case we’re not all on the same page here, I thought it wise to throw in a little definition here. In a piece for Psychology Today, Karyn Hall PhD wrote very succinctly that: “Kindness is defined as the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. Affection, gentleness, warmth, concern, and care are words that are associated with kindness”

I love this definition because it truly encapsulates that human warmth and the heart-based leadership and behaviour that we are missing in our modern world of work, where kindness has very much come to be considered as synonymous with ‘weakness’ and where we have perpetuated the belief that, in order to get ahead at work and in life, one needs to be callous, calculating, uncaring and detached.

The truth is that the importance of kindness cannot be overstated, as the act of being kind, compassionate, empathetic and caring is as beneficial to the person being kind as it is to the recipient. See, we all have a story we aren’t sharing and hurt we aren’t showing. The statistics on depression, divorce, financial woes, chronic illness, alcohol and drug abuse, are simply staggering on a global scale. Literally, every single person you will encounter today is going through some private hell they’re not sharing with everyone. Being kind in a world that is already such a scary, lonely, confusing place, just makes logical sense. We really shouldn’t be doing anything to add to anyone else’s stress and anxiety.

Lead by Example

If we want to change the world and create more kindness, we have to start with the one variable that we can control – our own, personal behaviour. If you want to cultivate a culture of kindness at work you need to start modelling the behaviour you want to see. I’m not saying that you need to be super generous and start treating all your colleagues to lunches and lattes (although acts like that are nice too, from time to time). It’s actually the little things that make a big impression: smiling, saying please and thank you, holding the elevator for a colleague. Greet people when you arrive at work or when you pass them in hallways. Smile. Start conversations and ask questions to show that you actually care about something other than yourself. Keep track of people’s birthdays or make notes about big things happening in their lives and then ask them about those things when you run into them in hallways or elevators. They will be blown away that you actually cared enough to take notice of what is happening in their lives and they will absolutely remember you for making them feel ‘seen’.

Recognition and Praise

There are few things as motivating for anyone, as a little public recognition or praise for a job well done. A simple ‘thank you’ – especially from a manager – goes a long way towards improving morale and helping people feel more appreciated at work. Make a habit of giving positive feedback to your colleagues and telling them that you appreciate their efforts and hard work. Small tokens of appreciation – like those lunches or lattes I was mentioning – are also a great way of showing that you’re thankful for their contribution. Making others feel good actually makes us feel good too!

Gossip be Gone

Playing office politics, gossiping about the personal or professional challenges being faced by a colleague or any other behaviour that ostracizes people in the workplace, is exceptionally toxic and damaging to your corporate culture. It’s cowardly and bullying behaviour and it has no place in a culture of kindness and inclusion, where open and transparent communication is encouraged. Be brave enough not to join in the gossip and instead learn how to have courageous conversations or share feedback on poor performance or unacceptable behaviour in an empathetic, respectful manner. If someone has landed up somehow being the ‘odd one out’, they could use a little kindness and friendliness more than most. Don’t use your words to harm others – whether that be through hurting their feelings or their professional or personal reputation. Your words matter. Use them to build people up and to make the world a better place.

Helping Others

Now that you’ve got the little things down-pat, it’s time to step up your game and start getting your company involved in community charities and initiatives. Not only does this actively uplift the broader community, but it also gives your employees an opportunity to contribute and ‘give back’ on a much larger scale. It’s advisable that you identify various charities to support in your community so that you appeal to a wide cross-section of employees. Get involved in global initiatives relating to health and wellness (think World Health Day, Diabetes Day, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, World AIDS Day) and start actively educating your employees and getting them involved in charity and community. Get a team together and go and paint kennels at your local animal shelter. Get employees to donate books to retirement communities or children’s charities. Donate old PCs and office furniture to deserving charities in your community. The opportunities to help others are literally endless and if you encourage a culture of ‘giving back’, you are engaging your employees and elevating the world around you, making it a better place.

Creating a kinder world is not only possible but necessary if we are to preserve our warmth and humanity in our detached digital world.  Kindness isn’t a weakness and it sure isn’t a career limiting move. In fact, in the new world of work where we are truly putting people first, kindness, empathy and listening are three of the most powerful behavioural competencies you could ever hope to have.

If people cannot remember what you used to do around here, at least make sure that they remember you were kind and you made them feel safe and valued. #KindnessinWork



Deborah Hartung

Deborah Hartung -

Deborah Hartung is a Consultant, Coach, Author and Speaker based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

She has spent almost 20 years advising corporates on matters relating to employee relations, corporate culture and leadership development. Deborah is passionate about people and technology, the human experience in the workplace and the opportunities for the advancement of humanity in the digital age. 

Especially popular with young or first-time leaders, entrepreneurs and women in leadership, Deborah encourages all those she meets to align with their purpose and to be brave enough to be authentic in all their interactions. She writes about life, love, leadership, workplace culture, the future of work and the importance of making the world a kinder, more tolerant place.

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