How Leaders can Build Employee Engagement and Boost Morale…Through Kindness

I am always intrigued and a little frustrated when I observe how often employers  overlook accessible, and no or low-cost ways to boost employee morale and engagement. Especially when such actions can easily connect to vital and universal human ambitions- like our innate drive to pursue happiness. And especially when the same actions are considered appropriate and in fact very desirable in our lives outside of work! That accessible but under-used leadership tool is kindness.

Kindness can be defined as the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. It’s taught in most of the world’s faith traditions as an important underpinning of how to live together and relate to others.  Most of our parents taught it to us and they modeled it in our homes.  We also learned it in pre-school or kindergarten when we stepped out of the home in the larger world.   Well, at least many of us did. Over the centuries, sages have written about it and encouraged it to generation after generation. Even Dilbert commented on its power. Or at least Scott Adams, who said: “There is no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple effect with no logical end.”

What Are Acts of Kindness in the Workplace?

What are the acts of kindness that can be encouraged, practiced, and ingrained into your workplace’s culture? They are very simple and very accessible.  Things like saying thank you more often; comments like “nice job” or  “I appreciated that” or “well done!” A theme here is compliments.  Their power is exemplified in this story.  A professional driver once told me how important it was to her that her CEO not only knew her name, but actually called her to tell her what a good job she was doing when she reached an important safety milestone.  She was beyond thrilled.  She went on to say this practice was not uncommon in her workplace- that senior managers often reached out to “regular people” like her. Why was that so important I asked? After all you weren’t you getting an award and recognition for the accomplishment already? “Because I know he cares, and I know he notices.  I know he is an important person, and he takes the time to tell me that I’m important too. He made me feel special.” she said. She said she knows he cares about her as person, not just a driver.  And that she would never think about leaving her employer despite being recruited almost daily by other companies.  That she actually recruits others to come there and work. Kindness and compliments were big part of her workplace culture and they connected her emotionally her to her employer’s business mission.  (A particularly powerful statement in the transportation industry which has massive employee turnover costs and too often has a culture of treating drivers, well, more like the equipment than people.)

Why is Kindness at Work so Hard?

Despite all this societal teaching and encouragement, and despite the simplicity of acts of  kindness, managers and peers can be hesitant to be kind, at least when it comes to giving compliments. Why is that? Research psychologists give us the answers.  First, they have found that compliment givers tend to underestimate the positive impact of compliments. They tend to falsely believe that the compliment may make the receiver anxious or uncomfortable.  Research actually shows the opposite is true- that receiving a compliment from a peer or a supervisor consistently brightens the receiver’s day, making them feel happier. Secondly, researchers have found that while managers say they want to give compliments and praise more often, most do not act when given the opportunity. In some experiments, people even did the hard part- writing down a compliment- then failed to send it or deliver it. Thirdly, researchers have learned that when in a position to give a compliment, managers sometimes become anxious that they may not do it in the right way. They fret that they are not skillful enough, that they don’t know the right words or phrases, that they will appear “soft” or a pushover.  Maybe they should focus less on the perfect words and more on conveying warmth, genuineness, and sincerity.

Why are Acts of Kindness Important in the Workplace and What are the Benefits?

Receiving an act of kindness has been shown to boost one’s self-esteem and happiness.  (Interestingly it usually does the same for the giver.)  It triggers positive emotions and actually creates the ripple effect Scott Adams referenced.  And managers and business leaders know that happier employees are engaged employees- ones who are more likely to be productive and less likely to look for greener pastures on the other side of the hill. At the same time today’s highly remote workplace robs employees of chances for those random, serendipitous interactions and encounters that provide opportunities for giving and receiving acts of kindness.  Chance encounters at the proverbial water fountain. Or in the hallway, the break room, the cafeteria or even the parking lot.  So, creating a culture of kindness is both important and more challenging than in the past. Especially in mobile workforces as we have in the trucking industry. Yet it can be extremely impactful and done without large costs to the organization. Plus, your culture of kindness at work can help mitigate the corrosive, ill effects on the wellbeing of your employees brought on by increasingly unkind social media environment and by the angry, divisive, and combative nature of 21st Century politics.

One key reason that kindness in your workplace is important is because it reduces employee burnout. Surveys show that being recognized by peers or supervisors helps reduce employee burnout and turnover.  Secondly, when we practice kindness, we bring more meaning and happiness to our lives, individually and corporately. Practicing kindness invests oneself in something larger than ourselves. A cause and mission besides our own. Think of how both individuals and companies kindly volunteer their time and resources to do good deeds that impact their communities and help the less fortunate members of society. Third, a culture of kindness tends to be self-perpetuating.   It creates a cascade of positive activity and feelings.  Research shows that workplaces that have a culture of kindness are places where recipients of kindness tend to pay it back.  They tend to pass it along to someone else on their team and to reciprocate when given the opportunity.  This culture often connects people to their organizations’ overall objectives and goals as in the story I mentioned earlier, while from leadership’s perspective it harnesses employees’ energy, collaboration, and innovation.

Three Ways to Create a Culture of Kindness in Your Workplace.

First, lead by your example as a manager. If you are a business leader, a human resources manager or “just” a supervisor- your actions count.  People in your organization look to you and other high-status individuals as models of optimal behaviors needed for success in your setting. By displaying genuine acts of kindness to your direct reports and expecting them to do likewise, you will set the tone for a culture of kindness. Leading by example, also means examining your messaging- your words and your tone.  And what about your CEO? Does he or she display these desirable behaviors and serve as the same sort of model? If not, kindly carry the message of the benefits of kindness to that leader.

Secondly, secure time in appropriate meetings for a peer recognition round of compliments and thank you’ s.  It won’t take much time but will be time well spent.  At Espyr, we have peer recognition time on every agenda of our Town Hall meetings. The joy, warmth and genuineness of the compliments, words of thanks, and shout-outs is palpable. Our team says it’s the best part of every meeting.

Third, look into peer bonus systems that give employees the opportunity to show appreciation for their peers and for managers to easily compliment and thank their employees. At Espyr, we use Motiviosity and have outstanding levels of usage. Again, research supports the notion that even these small acts of kindness are often as meaningful and motivating to people as larger ones.  (I’m hearing Dilbert again.)

If you don’t lead an organization, a department or a team that has a culture of kindness, now is a good time to start down that path. If your organization, department, or team lives and thrives in a culture of kindness already- congratulations!  I know you, your employees, and your customers are reaping the benefits.  Now, keep it up.  And please- pass it on!

About the Author

Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II, US DOT Qualified SAP is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr, a behavioral health company based in Atlanta, GA that serves the logistics industry. For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in behavioral health, substance abuse treatment, and Employee Assistance Program practice settings.  He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations.  An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional. He can be reached at: nwinegar@espyr.com  www.espyr.com

Sources

A Simple Compliment Can Make a Big Difference
Erica Boothby, Xuan Zhao, and Vanessa K. Bohns
Harvard Business Review
February 24, 2021

https://hbr.org/2021/02/a-simple-compliment-can-make-a-big-difference

The Power of Kindness at Work
Ovul Sezer, Kelly Nauly and Nadav Klein
SHRM via the Harvard Business Review
May 12, 2021

https://www.shrm.org/ResourcesAndTools/hr-topics/employee-relations/Pages/The-Power-of-Kindness-at-Work

More than Words…

Denise C. Marigold, John G. Holmes, and Michael Ross

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

March 2007 92 (2): 232-48

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6524609_More_Than_Words_Reframing_Compliments_From_Romantic_Partners_Fosters_Security_in_Low_Self-Esteem_Individuals

Norman Winegar
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, ACSW, NCAC II, DOT Qualified SAP Mr. Winegar is the Chief Clinical Officer of ESPYR, a Marietta, Georgia based behavioral health company. Mr. Winegar has over 30 years of professional experience in the mental health field. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a nationally Certified Employee Assistance Professional, a U.S. Department of Transportation Qualified Substance Abuse Professional, and a Nationally Certified Addictions Counselor, Level II. Mr. Winegar is a member of the Society for Human Resources Management, the National Association of Social Workers, and the Employee Assistance Professionals Association. He has been a Member of the National Academy of Certified Social Workers for over 25 years. A published author of four books and numerous articles concerning behavioral healthcare, Mr. Winegar is a frequent presenter at professional conferences and meetings. Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP| Chief Clinical Officer Espyr 1850 Parkway Place Suite 700 Marietta GA 30067