Kindness Pays

The business world doesn’t exactly have a reputation for kindness. Instead, it’s often described as cutthroat, cold, and as single-mindedly focused on profits over people. In recent years, this has been shifting in some ways, as consumers have begun to expect more from business in terms of values like generosity, openness, and responsibility. Not only that, researchers have begun to explore the impact of values and behaviors that have historically been left out of the corporate experience — like kindness — on key business indicators like profitability and employee retention. For those who may have been resisting — out of fear that practicing kindness in the workplace would be perceived as weak or unprofessional — there is now compelling case for rethinking this outdated and broken model.

Here are just a few of the reasons to build kindness into your own leadership model and your organization’s culture.

  • One study found that “low-warmth” leaders have a drastically lower chance of making it to the top quartile of effectiveness, compared to your high-warmth peers.
  • Research suggests that when leaders practice “respectful engagement,” teams are more creative and productive.
  • Modeling kind behavior has a ripple effect. A study found that in organizations where leaders are perceived as fair, employees practice more collegial behavior.
  • Workplaces can be stressful environments and high stress is associated with a host of negative health outcomes. But when we observe kind behavior, it actually lowers the stress response in our brains. Positive interactions, like those that result from acts of kindness, in the workplace thus have been shown to benefit employee health.

Be kind. It’s a simple mandate, but we are presented with opportunities to test our commitment to it multiple times a day. It requires dedication and persistence, but the payoff is worth it.

To Exchange Judgment for Openness, It Starts with Noticing

This is the third in a 6-part series on the principles of heart-based leadership. If you missed them, don’t forget to check out the first and second posts. 

We all know the voice of our own internal judge. It’s the voice that always seems able to find fault — either with others or ourselves. Our tendency to judge is really about control. If we can identify what’s wrong at least we don’t have to stay in that uncomfortable space of allowing life — a business situation, a relationship, illness, the state of the world — to be just as it is.

Of course, this type of judgment is different than wise discernment — the ability to make well-informed decisions that produce desired outcomes — which is particularly important in business. When I talk about “suspending judgment,” as a principle of heart-based leadership, I mean refraining from the habit, which stems from fear, of finding fault and assigning blame. When we are caught in judgment, we cannot lead with heart.

Since this tendency is so hard-wired in us — we often don’t even realize we’re doing it — it is a challenge to practice non-judgment. The goal is to be able to identify fear-based judging when it’s happening, pause, and consider setting aside the need to assign blame and instead open to alternatives.

Signs of fear-based judgment:

  • Black or white, all or nothing thinking. The judging mind loves extremes. “He completely messed up. We’ll never meet that deadline now.” “She is the worst. She never stops talking and always cuts people off.” Do you notice the superlatives? These can be signs of judgment.
  • Feeling shut down and closed off. Judgment separates us from others. Often you might feel a clench in your chest, a knot in your stomach or a hardening sensation in the heart.
  • Feeling locked in to an opinion or statement. Have you ever been in the middle of an argument and realized you were wrong? When we identify with our judgments we become very attached to them and this leads to rigidity.
  • “Shoulds” – She should have sent me the document earlier, then we would have been better prepared for the meeting. “Should” is a sign of arguing with reality. It’s OK to not be pleased with how things are or to work for change, but it first requires acceptance of the way things are rather than insistence that they should be different.

If you notice any of these thinking patterns, pause and (without judging yourself!) ask whether, if only for a moment, you can let the situation or person be as it is without desiring it to be otherwise.  Can you open your heart to the things about it that you don’t like (your coworker’s talkativeness; your client being late to your meeting; the sales team not making its quarterly target)? Seeing the judging and challenging it with open-heartedness, if only briefly, helps us get in the habit of suspending judgment and frees us to interact, make decisions, and lead from a place of love rather than fear.

To Lead from the Heart, Listen with It

This is the second post in my blog series on the foundations of heart-based leadership. If you missed it, don’t forget to check out last month’s post on celebrating others’ work. Thanks for reading! 

Our ability to communicate effectively with others is arguably the single most important skill we can develop. It is a prerequisite for success in every sphere of our lives. Successful relationships — whether personal or professional — result when all involved feel they are heard and are able to confidently and authentically voice their needs, wants, and boundaries.

When we think of someone with strong “communication skills,” we often envision a person at ease speaking in front on an audience or particularly gifted at articulating his or her thoughts in a compelling and engaging way. While this is certainly important, the other side of the communication equation isn’t as easy to see, but it matters just as much. If we are not attuned, thoughtful, earnest listeners, we miss out on the opportunity to truly connect.

Many of us, regardless of what we spend our days doing, live with the constant pressure to do more and this wreaks havoc on our communication with others. This is because listening requires us to pause, be fully present, and open our hearts, without leaning into the future — preparing our response, interpreting what we hear according to how it will impact us, or thinking about something else entirely. This is the difference between hearing and listening. The former is a matter of the ears, while the latter is skill of the heart. When we listen in a disengaged way, our communication, and thus our relationships, stay surface-level and often we miss out on important information. As leaders, we should strive to bring the same quality of attention every time we listen, regardless of the speaker. Everyone has valuable information to share, and all deserve to be honored with authentic listening.

In my own case, when I’m being conscientious about listening deeply, it makes a huge difference in the quality of connection I am able to make. People often say that my response is just what they needed to hear, a wise insight, or profoundly touching. In these instances, because I am listening with my full attention, when I speak, it is from the heart rather than the mind.

There are excellent resources for developing the capacity for deep listening. Many of these offer strategies to practice “active listening,” which can be helpful in making something which can seem abstract more concrete and actionable. The Greater Good Science Center has a helpful worksheet that highlights both the attitudinal and conversational components that can help deepen our listening. There are many others out there, and like anything else, becoming a better listener takes effort and practice. But more important than any strategy or rubric, real listening is about open-hearted willingness to be present — both with ourselves and with another person — the curiosity to go deeper, and the intention to connect authentically.  

Celebrating the Work of Others

One of the foundations of heart-based leadership is a commitment to celebrating the work and accomplishments of others, whether they’re colleagues, employees, or even competitors. When we intentionally honor others’ wins, we generate positive energy and create an opportunity for increased creativity, more meaningful and collaborative relationships, and greater well-being for all. There is more to this than simply going around praising others’ work and success. As leaders, we have the opportunity to model feedback that is empowering and energizing.

Meaningful, productive feedback is perhaps the most powerful tool in a leader’s arsenal — for increasing morale, productivity, and buy-in. Nevertheless, we often spend more time and energy identifying what needs to be done and managing people as they do it, than we do on the follow up. But the follow up is an essential moment for generating the positive energy and trust that will drive continued success.

So what does it look like to acknowledge the work of others with authenticity and heart? The first step is deepening our attention so we can really notice the positive qualities in others’ work. When praise is too general it feels empty; the more specific we can be in expressing our appreciation the better. This, in turn, gives us the opportunity to encourage others to continue in this way, making it more likely we’ll continue to see the type of work that generates positive results. Second, to make feedback truly meaningful, we must go beyond commenting on the work itself and share how we feel about it and how it helps the organization and others who work there. Through expressing our feelings about the work or accomplishment and placing it in a broader context, acknowledgment becomes a chance to spark connection and inspiration.

These two components are simple, but providing meaningful feedback takes greater time and closer attention than the way we usually give it. However, in my work, I have found that it is undoubtedly worth it. Making a commitment to honor the work of others’ around you and doing so consistently creates positive energy that helps people thrive and organizations succeed.

Get started: Make a commitment to notice the great work of others throughout this week and share authentic feedback with team members before they leave work on Friday. Send them into the weekend with the gift of your heartfelt appreciation.

Creating a Winning — and Caring — Team Culture

March Madness is officially over, but college basketball fans of all ages just enjoyed the most exciting NCAA men’s tournament in years. From the first round to the Final Four, we saw that anything can happen. The tournament is a high pressure time for coaches and players, as talent, competitiveness, and pride go on full display in a battle to be the best of the best. It also shines a spotlight on the best (and worst) in team dynamics and leadership.

This year’s number one seed, University of Virginia, is a team that has been both praised and criticized for the playing style they’ve cultivated. Their slow, defense-focused approach to the game is a hallmark of their coach, Tony Bennett, has earned recognition not only for his success on the court, but also for his values-driven coaching. While his team didn’t end up with the trophy this year, Bennett stands out for his heart-based leadership in an arena where the pressure to perform, even at the expense of integrity, is often high.

From the beginning of his career, Coach Bennett focused on recruiting players that not only had the skills to win, but also had the character to be part of a team that cares about more than just the numbers of the scoreboard. Bennett’s coaching philosophy is built around “five pillars”: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. Many other college coaches have tried to replicate what Bennett has built, with some even incorporating his five pillars into their own coaching vocabulary, many have been unsuccessful. Colleagues who know him, at UVA and beyond, believe Bennett is successful because he truly models the behaviors that he demands of his teammates, leading by example and living out these character traits in all aspects of his life.  

As children, we learn “there’s no ‘I’ in team,” and the best teams are able to develop a true sense of shared purpose and trust in one another. In an interview on the sports website, The Ringer, one of Bennett’s players talked about the deep bonds the team has forged, saying, “When something goes wrong, we fix it together. We lose together, and we win together. That’s just who we are.” This sense of unity has to be cultivated, and leadership plays an important role. This is done through creating a culture of trust, in which all members — players and coaches — are invested growing and improving together and treat one another with respect. Where you often see coaches losing their cool on the sidelines or with players who’ve made a mistake, Bennett is notably calm and collected.

UVA President Teresa Sullivan has said of his coaching style: “He squats down to their level and talks with [the players] — like a teacher. He really coaches. He doesn’t yell. I think that just sets such a great model for what coaching is. Coaching is a form of teaching, and I particularly appreciate that.” This respectful, constructive approach to coaching lays the foundation for a team that is willing to take risks, make mistakes, and grow together.

UVA didn’t end up with the tournament run the players and Coach Bennett hoped for. However, with their strong team culture and passionate leadership, not only will they recover from this disappointment, but they’ll come back next season with new insights into their game and themselves and I have no doubt we’ll continue to see them at the top of the NCAA tourney bracket.

Acing Happiness Starts with Kindness and Love

These days, it often seems like we can’t escape the conversations the differences and divisions — political, racial, gender, socioeconomic — between us. With these continuous us-versus-them messages, we lose sight of all that we have in common. The Dalai Lama has often highlighted one of the most important of these, reminding us that “everyone wants to be happy.” And it’s true. At our core, we all share this genuine wish for contentment and peace.

So what are we to make of the fact that nearly one-fourth of Yale undergrads enrolled in a course meant to teach them how to be happier? A recent New York Times article reported that this course, Psychology and the Good Life, was the most popular in Yale’s history.

According to a 2017 report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, one in five college students experience anxiety or depression at some point. This figure is staggering — and we need to do more to build awareness, reduce stereotypes, and encourage treatment for mental health conditions — but it seems students may be waking up to the possibility that happiness is something we can learn to cultivate.

In the article, students share some of the reasons for unhappiness on campus, citing an intense pressure to achieve, and the accompanying stress and low self-esteem that go along with that. This isn’t surprising given that in our culture, and particularly in highly competitive contexts like leading universities, we emphasize outward success rather than inner well being and authentic connection with others.

But the mere existence of courses like this, is promising, as is the seemingly widespread interest among students, at least at one college campus, in cultivating a more fulfilling, happier life. Positive psychology research shows that we can increase our happiness by changing our thinking patterns and our behaviors. Some of these include practicing gratitude, compassion, and altruism, connecting with others, and spending time doing activities that bring us joy. And this extends to the workplace as well. Research shows that the healthiest organizations are those in which employees feel connected to one another, and that practicing generosity and empathy can actually make us more successful in our careers.

Kindness and love breed happiness, and they are habits we can all adopt. We can all become students in the practice of kindness, and in doing so, will be contributing to a happier, healthier world.

This Valentine’s Day, Practice Love

Happy Valentine’s Day! On this international day of love, we often get caught up in greeting cards, chocolate, flowers, and making plans with that special someone. Those are all wonderful, but what if we could infuse each day with the same focus on sharing love? Further, what if we could extend that love to not only our romantic partner, family and friends, but to everyone around us?

This Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share the practices that have been most helpful for me in cultivating a loving heart, both in business and my personal life. My e-book, Practicing Love and Compassion: Daily Rituals to Transform Your Life and Relationships is filled with simple but effective ways to bring more love into your life. I hope you enjoy this Valentine’s Day gift, and I would love to hear what you think of these practices. Which ones work for you? Which do you find challenging? Do you have others that you practice regularly?

When we each bring more love into our lives at the individual level, we create a ripple effect. Together, we can co-create more compassionate communities, workplaces, and ultimately, a more love-filled world. I look forward to this journey with you!

Click here for your free e-book!

Fear: Behind the Manager-Employee Divide

We often don’t realize how many of our decisions and behaviors are a response to fear. Fear of failure, fear of losing the esteem of others, fear of conflict, these are all common, and understandable, fears that we have. Fear serves an important function — it protects us from harm — however, more often than not, the “dangers” we fear are imagined or things we have absolutely no control over. This becomes problematic because, when we let fear guide us — causing us to try to control the world around us, blame or judge others to make ourselves feel better, remain firmly planted in our comfort zones, among other ways  — we put up walls with others and cut ourselves off from our most creative, authentic selves.

My view is we need to help people get out of the grip of fear in business, a sphere where this emotion has a particularly strong hold. Through decades of working with businesspeople and managers, I’ve come to believe that the only thing more powerful than fear is love, and that leading from love is the only way to truly thrive in the business world.

A key area is a manager’s relationships with employees, as this can often be one of the biggest sources of stress and tension. So I wasn’t surprised to read that a recent Harris survey found that nearly 70% of managers are “often uncomfortable” communicating with employees. The survey highlighted a few situations in particular — giving feedback when they believe the employee might respond negatively, demonstrating vulnerability, and crediting others with good ideas — that managers are particularly averse to, but the majority cited communicating in general as uncomfortable. This discomfort stems from a host of fears that are holding managers back from the very important responsibility of having frequent, constructive, honest dialogue with employees.

In business there are many occasions for difficult conversations, and communication can be challenging, but it is essential to success — of the business, the employees and leaders. Avoiding communication, communicating inauthentically, and engaging in harmful or hurtful communication are all common behaviors in the business world, and all indicate that fear is at the helm. These behaviors disappear however, when managers shift to letting love and compassion be their guide. To make workplaces healthier, happier, more productive environments, and to drive true success and growth, we need leaders to rise above their fear to love.

Chance the Rapper: Leading and Living in Tune with Love

People who are living from love are hard to ignore. They bring a positive energy (and often, a lot of it) to everything they do, and because of this they are able to recruit others to their cause and, in my experience, succeed in making their goals a reality.

Chancelor J. Bennett, the 24-year-old Chicago native known to the world as Chance the Rapper, is an extremely successful rapper, record producer and actor. But outshining all of that is the quality of heart that he brings to the many philanthropic initiatives he leads. Between spearheading successful anti-violence social media campaigns, organizing open mic nights for Chicago youth, and starting an organization to support arts and other programming for Chicago Public Schools, it’s hard to believe he finds time for his namesake activity. Last March, he donated $1 million to Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and started his Arts & Literature Fund, an effort that has raised $2.2 million, to help empower CPS students.  In October he forged a partnership with Lyft, Round Up and Donate, which will enable riders to donate to CPS by rounding up their fares.

Those who live and work from a place of love shine brightly, and while recognition is never a goal of the heart-based leader, they often receive it. In 2014, Chance the Rapper was named Chicago’s Outstanding Youth of the Year for his work promoting the #SaveChicago social media campaign, which helped contribute to 42 consecutive hours without gun violence in Chicago, and in 2017 he received the BET Humanitarian Award.

 (Photo by Scott Dudelson/WireImage )

But it’s not only through activism that Chance is leading from the heart and doing so with great success. He’s also stood behind his beliefs in business, making the decision to write uplifting lyrics and forego the traditional record label deals and release his music via streaming services only. His album was the first streaming-only recording to win a Grammy, and his music has won numerous other accolades. He made it onto Fortune Magazine’s 2017 list of the World’s Greatest Leaders, taking his place alongside business icons like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon.

By bringing creativity, passion, and generosity to every project he takes on, and letting these core values drive his decisions and actions, this young leader has set a new standard for the socially-minded celebrity. He inspires across generations and industries through his continued commitment to equality and social justice.

Unity As a Business Practice

One of the qualities of heart-based leadership is an ability to see opportunity where others don’t. This often means a willingness to do business in places and with people that many businesses disregard. Without a doubt, this takes a creativity and vision that single-minded focus on the bottom line may stifle. But more than that, it requires the belief that business isn’t a zero sum game, and that by enlarging the so-called “pie” so that more people and communities can participate, we all benefit.

One inspiring example of the power of inclusive business practice is the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago, and its founder and executive director, Rami Nashashibi, who was awarded the 2017 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award last month for his work in one of Chicago’s South Side poverty areas. The organization’s activities are extensive and various — from organizing farmers markets in previously run-down public spaces, flipping houses to sell to low-income residents, organizing cultural events, and running a health clinic — but address the needs of Chicago’s most underserved neighborhoods while simultaneously promoting intercultural understanding and dialogue between communities that differ across racial, ethnic and religious lines.

Nashashibi’s commitment to inclusion has contributed to the strength of his organization, but this type of leadership requires the courage to choose love over divisiveness. In doing so, he’s created, in the words of the MacArthur Foundation, a “unique coalition of typically disparate constituencies—most notably, African American Muslims and Muslim immigrant communities in both low-income urban areas and wealthier suburbs.”

Could an organization comprised of one of these groups alone have created the value that IMAN has? It’s unlikely. It takes visionary leaders whose personal belief in unity — in Nashashibi’s case, this belief is grounded in his Islamic faith — translates to their business practice.