ON KINDNESS AT WORK: IT’S NOT SOFT

Kindness at Work Matters

Kindness at work matters. It should be a central tenet of employment practice. I define kindness as being kind and generous to others and enjoying doing good deeds for others. It’s a strength within the virtue of humanity in the VIA Character Strength Classification

Let’s be clear. It isn’t about being ‘soft.’ It’s about showing a measure of sacrifice and commitment to others. In the workplace, it’s about being a fully engaged and productive member of a team. 

I can hear some snorts of derision, particularly from some of my past managers (they’re categorically not leaders). Let me repeat. It’s not about being soft. It has a place in some of the world’s toughest sports, and at the elite level. 

Kindness and Toughness are Easy Bedfellows

For example, kindness at work is, implicitly, one of Bill Walsh’s ‘expected standards’ of performance. Bill was a highly successful American football coach. ‘Gridiron,’ as it’s known, is, alongside rugby (league and union), one of the toughest games in the world. It’s no place for wallflowers. However, according to one of its greatest ever coaches, it is very definitely a place for kindness. 

Another example came with the naming of the All Blacks’ (ABs) 2019 rugby world cup squad. Owen Franks has 108 caps at tight-head prop, one of the most technically and physically demanding positions in rugby union. Despite an illustrious career, he won’t, unless a squad member falls injured, make the journey to Japan this year. Now, Steve Hansen, the AB’s Head Coach does not come across as ‘soft.’ Indeed like many AB and New Zealand coaches, he has a reputation for steely ruthlessness. Hansen made the call to Franks to explain why he hadn’t made the cut. He could (as some head coaches do) have left it to one of the coaching team, but he didn’t. Apparently, this is how he handles team selection (or rather non-selection) all the time. It’s not softness. It’s kindness.

The Australian Public Service: the Sorry State of Home Affairs?

Each year the Australian Public Service (APS) surveys its membership. This year’s census has found that thousands of public servants want to quit the Home Affairs Department. They cite low morale and high levels of bullying and harassment. Led by Peter Dutton, Minister for Home Affairs, the Department is responsible for implementing some of the most controversial policies in Australian society, around immigration in particular. Right-wingers adore Dutton, but the left loathe him. A former police officer and business owner, he is manifestly a right-wing conservative, populist and pragmatic politician. For the record, I’m apolitical, and I can’t vote in Australia anyway. However, I do care about kindness in the workplace.

Employee morale is job satisfaction, outlook, and feelings of well-being employees have in a workplace setting. Bullying occurs when an individual or group of individuals repeatedly behave unreasonably towards a worker, and that behaviour creates a risk to health and safety. Harassment has three primary legal definitions. In sexual harassment, a person makes an unwelcome sexual advance, an unwelcome request for sexual favours, or engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to a person. Racial harassment is offensive behaviour based on racial hatred. Offensive behaviour includes an act that is likely to offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate another because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin. Australian law also prohibits harassment in relation to an employee’s disability.

Bullying?

In one sense, I hope that the APS census is reporting mainly about bullying here and that harassment is a proxy for bullying. If it’s not, then we have a severely fractured Department, and Dutton and his directorate have some serious questions to answer. Setting that aside, but not lightly, if we’re dealing with bullying more than anything else (which I suspect is the case), then equally, there is a problem. That noted, having occupied senior executive positions, some ‘bullying’ is reported where managers deliver a message that someone doesn’t like, so caution is needed. However, Home Affairs does seem to have a severe challenge. On the evidence presented, a substantial number of Home Affairs employees are:

  • dissatisfied with their job, 
  • unhappy with their outlook, 
  • do not enjoy workplace well-being, and  
  • feel that someone is repeatedly behaving unreasonably towards them.

These findings are not conducive to the development of a workplace that performs well, let alone the high-performance workplace that some might expect of the APS and Federal Government. Remember, this is the Australian public’s tax dollars at work.

Kindness at Work … Works

Now, some of my old managers might have said: ‘suck it up’ or ‘harden up.’ Such phrases are doubly weird since several of them worked in universities and, in principle at least, should subscribe to evidence-based practice. There is a substantial slab of expanding evidence, demonstrating that poor transactional management (aka ‘command and control’), especially of ‘white collar’ workers, is counterproductive. In other words, we need more kindness, more sacrifice, and more commitment to others.

Peter Dutton seems to relish his reputation as a hardline, ‘tough-nut’ on immigration. I’m not going to debate the merits of that. The refugee challenge worldwide is very nearly intractable, in need of a radical solution set. Further, I don’t hold much hope that the present mob of world ‘leaders,’ are capable of addressing a problem of this scale. However, as the old saying goes: ‘a fish rots from the head.’ If we want an effective public service, Dutton and others need to take a good look at their leadership style if they are to engage the APS fully.

Workplace kindness works. It isn’t soft; it’s about sacrifice and commitment to others. Alongside other performance expectations, it can produce high-performance workplaces. Want high-performance in your workplace? Be kind.