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How to Foster Kindness in the Workplace

Three eye-opening blockers to kindness, and three simple fixes.

Scott Henderson
8 min readMay 1, 2022


“Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change.” — Bob Kerry, US Senator

I started going back to the office two days a week towards the end of 2021. I knew no one, got lost in the building, didn’t know where anything was, and resolved to figure it all out on my own.

I almost never saw anyone in the building anyway. Until one day, someone was sitting across from my normal desk. We got talking, she showed me the building, answered my questions, and invited me to the 5k she and some of her colleagues had organized.

These simple acts of kindness helped me go from feeling somewhat disconnected from the organization I work for to being connected to it and the people there. I’ve since reflected on the experience and asked myself -

  • How kind am I at work? How does my being kind affect those I work with and the business?
  • What gets in the way of people being kind at work?

Initial research illustrates the results of kind work environments range from boosting an individual’s well-being to increased organizational productivity and efficiency. But being kind and fostering a kind work environment is not easy. Things get in the way. We must become aware of the obstacles that keep us from being kind and adopt behaviors that foster environments of kindness.

Kindness Blocker: Stress

Scientist: Don’t worry about being stressed. Some rocks become diamonds under extreme pressure.

Patient: What about the other rocks?

Scientist: Oh they turn to dust

- Jonny Sun, Canadian Author

We all have loads to do and not enough time to do it. Responsibility and stress grow as individuals move into leadership positions and begin making more important decisions. This can be a recipe for disaster because research shows people who make decisions under stress do not -

  • Evaluate information as thoroughly as they should, resulting in suboptimal decisions.
  • Rely more on biases and habits, causing less openness to diversity of thought.
  • May leave more up to chance, leading to unnecessary risk-taking.

They are also less likely to be kind to those they work with and lead. The expectation cannot be to not stress, nor can it be to just be kind. Let’s face it. We are human and we are all sometimes unkind. We can all get better at owning our unkind moments and using them to cultivate kindness.

Kindness Enabler: Extend Apologies

“An apology is the superglue for life! It can repair just about anything”

- Lynn Johnson

Mistakes are inevitable no matter how well we get at managing our stress or making decisions. The right intentions and approach to making an apology are essential to the effectiveness of the apology. If the intention is to only restore trust or salvage a reputation, then the apology will not serve its purpose.

Good apologies communicate three essential things: First, we care about the other person enough to go out of our way to say something. Second, we learned something new; third, apologies set new expectations based on our learning.

How does one craft an effective apology? Here are some adaptable sentences to use -

  • I realize my behavior could have had ___________ type of an impact.
  • I was coming from a place of ___________, and I realize I did ________ wrong.
  • I’m telling myself that if I did x, y, and z in the future, then things will go better.

Another cool thing about apologies is, contrary to the popular belief that apologizing for something is a sign of weakness or incompetence, research shows leaders who apologize for mistakes are perceived as more competent.

Leaders who are good apology givers, experience them as more kind and competent leaders, resulting in a healthier work environment and greater productivity.

Kindness Blocker: Stories

The story I’m telling myself is…”

- Brené Brown, Researcher and Author

I play basketball with a group of guys once a week. The group plays twice but I usually can only play one night. A couple of weeks ago I received a text message from the organizer asking me not to come on my normal night and to instead play on the second night.

For the first 5–10 minutes after receiving the text I wondered why the request was made. I told myself ridiculous stories about what prompted it — all of which made me feel unwanted and negative. I quickly realized I was spiraling and caught myself. I identified the facts and stopped. All I knew for sure was that I received a text asking me to come on a different day.

This type of assumptive behavior is common. We all do it. Information comes to us, we interpret it, and then tell ourselves a story as we seek for meaning.

For example (notice data /observables in bold, interpretations in italics) —

  • My manager didn’t email me back, they must think this idea is a bad one.
  • My manager didn’t ask for my opinion, they must not care about what I have to say.
  • My manager interrupted me during the presentation, they must not think I’m capable of presenting to clients.

This happens in our day-to-day lives too. Family members and friends say or do things that we create narratives out of.

This pattern is best conceptualized as the Ladder of Inference.

image from Harvard Professional Development

Chris Argyris, a prominent business scholar, and Harvard professor created the model. In short, the rung closest to the ground is the objective data we take in. Humans quickly begin to climb the ladder by making inferences about their world and sometimes they end up multiple rungs up from the bottom with unhelpful stories.

The kindest leaders and contributors are those who leave very little space for storytelling, because they communicate well and often.

Kindness Enabler: Explain — Satisfy Curiosities

“Be curious, not judgmental…” — Unknown

The text I sent in response to the request I got to play basketball a different night was — “Can do. What changed?” I learned multiple guys in the group could only play on the first night of the week due to their work schedules and fewer bodies meant more playing time for them. So if I could be flexible it would help us all get more playing time.

The kindest (and arguably best) leaders and managers are those who go out of their way to share the WHY. Had my basketball group organizer shared the why, I would have been less likely to tell myself a negative story. This simple act keeps the receivers of messages from climbing the ladder of inference.

Some people will ignore the explanations leaders give them and tell themselves a story anyways. That’s why this skill is so important for leaders to get really good at. Here is a simple checklist leaders can use to do it effectively.

  1. What is the objective data/information used to make this decision?
  2. What words or phrases do I need to clarify or define so I’m both understood, and not misunderstood? (e.g., “They always knock it out of the park!” — who? always is probably not true, and what does “knock it out of the park” actually mean?)
  3. What was/is the expected impact? (e.g., “based on our A-B testing, we expect this new approach will increase sales by 25%, resulting in/leading to…”)

When leaders fill in the gaps within their communication, people spend less time creating stories, more time listening, and develop greater trust in their leader.

(Pro tip: The best contributors/team players proactively ask their leaders questions to fill in the gaps rather than assuming or guessing. When contributors do this, not only do they help themselves via information gathering, but they also demonstrate kindness by helping their leaders think more clearly and by getting answers for their colleagues.)

Kindness Blocker: Negativity Bias

“You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive.”

- Dr. Richard Boyatzis, Professor of Organizational Behavior

The experience I shared about being asked to play basketball on a different night is a great example of negativity bias. Negativity Bias is a heavily researched principle that states human disposition is to pay attention to, learn from, and use negative information more than positive information.

This is observable when someone remembers critical feedback better than positive or when someone is irritated by the one mistake they made in an overall successful presentation.

Most of us can also experience this right now if I ask you to write down five things you dislike about your job and then five things you like about your job, you would likely have an easier time with the dislike list and finish quicker.

The tricky thing about work is how fast-paced it is. We rarely have time to pause and think about the positive things going on. Meanwhile, our negativity bias is unconsciously at work.

If we are not proactively trying to notice positive things then our negativity bias might nudge us to contribute negatively to a working environment or team.

Kindness Enabler: Offer Compliments

“I can live for two months on a good compliment”

- Mark Twain

I have a friend and whenever we spend time together I come away feeling more positive. Primarily because he makes a point to notice an interesting idea I shared, the shirt I wore, or how I handled something, and then he gives me specific compliments. He is a force for good in many people’s lives.

I don’t know very many people like him who go around easily finding and giving compliments to friends, colleagues, and strangers (yes strangers!).

Why don’t people extend compliments more graciously? Well, research shows one reason could be people underestimate the positive impact of their compliments on receivers. These researchers also found people believed their compliments might make receivers feel uncomfortable when in fact receivers reported feeling better and more comfortable after receiving compliments.

Everyone is walking around paying greater attention to the negative things than the positive; we all could be a force for good, bringing more positive things to the surface by extending genuine compliments. Here are five tips on how to get started -

  1. Start with someone you feel comfortable with — practice delivering compliments to people you know to build some compliment-giving confidence
  2. Be grateful — Gratitude is more organic an expression than compliment giving and is a good step in the right direction. Tell someone “thank you” for anything that helped save you time or energy.
  3. Be specific — telling someone they did a good job is a step in the right direction; however, if you can tell them what exactly they did then the quality of your compliment goes up.
  4. Share the “small” compliments — keep it simple and give compliments no matter how small.
  5. Decide on a number — decide how many compliments you feel comfortable giving in a day and hit it.

Something I love about kindness is how supernatural it can seem. When we are kind we are literally making something out of nothing. We are simply using our words to positively influence people, teams, and organizations to contribute to a healthier working environment and culture. The results are clear — a kind work environment leads to healthier people and increased organizational output.

\So — be kind. Apologize. Satisfy curiosities. Give compliments. Repeat.