Is there room for kindness in business?

Last Friday’s #kaizenblog focused on kindness in business and asked this very question. I’ll leave it to @3keyscoach to provide her great recap, but wanted to share a few thoughts here.

I’ve often wondered if I’d be further along in my career if I were less kind. Or took a different path. I tend to be very accommodating and considerate of others’ feelings, up and down the corporate ladder. That means I try not to rock the boat – which means I’m not always assertive as I should be. And when I pursued a career as a commercial photographer, I struggled with the cold calls and being direct in asking for the business. Classic sales mistakes. I could blame the dot com crash and 9/11 for my failure in the photography biz. Or that I was 10 years too late.

But I think it was desire, failure to respond to rapidly changing market, the tough, competitive sales process and being in Portland vs. Los Angeles or New York, where John Sharpe said he’d have use for me if I were there. Kindness was not at fault. While this detour definitely slowed my progress, it also helped me define what I wanted to be when I grew up. Made me tougher. And one strong visual thinker.

Or maybe it’s that I didn’t exert enough of my alpha male – the aggressive drive to fully stand for what I believe in and market the breadth and depth of my capabilities as I effectively could. Tooting my own horn so to speak. I will say I think my constant quest to learn has afforded me the ability to execute on virtually all areas of communications – from strategy to writing, design, and photography whether print or online. And geek out on SEO and PPC. But suffer from too-nice syndrome? Doubtful. I know others much kinder, more patient, than I.

I grew up in a retail family. My parents owned two general merchandise stores in which I worked on the front lines of customer service. I saw great customers and those not so great. And in college I worked in the electronics department at the U of O Bookstore, again serving customers. There were many grumpy customers and after many late nights of studying and other less studious activities, it was tough to always maintain a smile and cheerful attitude.

Are the most successful those not so kind?

Consider Steve Jobs. He’s no doubt incredibly successful. And is known to be a controlling tyrant. Same with Martha Stewart. Seems many of the most successful get there because they claim and use their power to get ahead, often at the expense of others. Same with politics. It’s a big focus on me, myself and I versus the greater good. Misleading with half-truths and flimsy claims to build revenue. Look, for example, at the new Corn Sugar ads trying to rebrand ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ into something benign. And true kindness, I believe, includes consideration for the greater good. I don’t believe, however, our political system rewards kindness – but that’s a whole other discussion.

I could cite endless examples on how success comes to the most opportunistic. The most cutthroat casting aside those that get in their way. Is it more about power and control? Or can you be kind and get to the same place?

Let’s not confuse kindness with execution.

Steve and Martha may not be kind. But they execute. Everyday. They work really hard. They’re driven and they don’t give up. But I think either could still get where they are with a healthy dose of kindness.  To succeed with kindness, you have to understand what it means to follow through. If you’re just kind, and have great ideas but don’t act, you won’t succeed. Period.

My top 11 thoughts on kindness in business:
  • Kindness doesn’t mean superficial small talk. It means genuinely showing interest in your customers and colleagues
  • You can’t use kindness as an excuse for not moving forward. Some people really like to chat. But sometimes you need to get things done. In that case it’s time to politely move the conversation forward into action steps. Offer to follow up later.
  • Kindness doesn’t mean hiring just your friends. You need to be strategic and hire those best suited for a job. In that case, you do your friends a favor by explaining why they didn’t make the cut and how they can improve themselves. That’s true kindness although they may not realize it at the time.
  • Kindness means talking straight. Being authentic. Don’t say what you don’t mean. Phoniness is most always transparent.
  • Kindness means being kind to those who aren’t. It’s not expected and often very disarming.
  • Kindness means being willing to do the job needed for you and your team and company to succeed. No matter how high you rise up the ladder, being willing to pitch in when needed on a project is kind.
  • Kindness is sharing the glory – recognizing that most business successes require the efforts of many. It’s never about you.
  • Kindness is the ability to provide constructive feedback to a peer or employee with the intent to help them grow. Even when it hurts.
  • Kindness means going out of your way to help a customer. Even if it’s not in your job description.
  • Kindness means paying attention to the little details – this HBR article used to kick off #kaizenblog proves it.
  • Kindness does not equal wimpy. Being a pushover is not being kind. It’s lacking a backbone and conviction.

I think the group felt that kindness does have a place in business. Some businesses more than others.

A personal example of the power of long-term kindness:

My wife Denise is a mortgage broker. Yes, even now. When she entered the business 15 years ago, her manager said she was too nice to make it. She needed to toughen up. But that’s not who she was. She didn’t want to charge the heavy fees that gave the industry a bad rap. Or put her clients into loans they either couldn’t afford or came with huge adjustable interest rates and penalties down the road. She wanted to help people. Provide them with the facts and hold their hand throughout the whole process, working hard to ensure everything happened as promised and on time. The result? During the boom years she made less than the top producers, but has steadily seen her business grow. And in one of the toughest mortgage markets around, she’s seen her two best years and is now outperforming many former top producers. Many of whom have seen their businesses evaporate.

With each change in the regulations and ways mortgage brokers operate, she’s managed to navigate successfully by pricing fairly and looking out for her client’s best interest. They come back and refer her to others. Because she combines kindness with execution. In fact in 2007 she received a 100% customer satisfaction rating.

My favorite resources that support this theory that kindness in business works:
  • Bill George – Authentic Leadership. In this book he talks about how he found kindess and translated it into more effective leadership.
  • Keith Ferrazzi – Never eat alone – and Who’s Got your back. Watch this video for a great sense of how important it is to connect. Engage by being human and simply caring.
  • Tim Sanders, Love is the Killer App. Doesn’t the title say it all?
  • And for managers, Robert Sutton is the guru of kindness. From The No Asshole Rule to Good Boss. Bad Boss (affiliate links)
  • Chuck Ferguson’s Indomitable Spirit. Great story about Jim Lusser, former CEO of St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Oregon. How he used to be an asshole and realized the potential of kindness as a business advantage – and in treating patients with dignity. He banished titles – everyone was a caregiver. Patients were allowed to wear what they wanted vs. the standard hospital gown. And were given massages before surgery. They could even order what they wanted to eat and choose the time to eat. Guess what? costs for anesthesia went down. Food costs went down.

My sense is that in a world where customers are empowered by social technologies, kindness is going to play a bigger role in success. Used to be you could be Gordon Gecko and see much success. Seems with the right connections you still can. And you can always spin the data to tell a story. But for most of us, being kind – and smart about it – trumps the alternative. And kindess doesn’t mean being a pushover. Sometimes it means a little tough love along the way. Kindness also doesn’t take the place to taking action. You still have to execute, operate from a sound strategy.


  1. What a great post, Patrick!

    I’ve seen a lot of blog posts and articles lately about kindness and business and whether or not the 2 can co-exist. I think it’s an interesting trend. As more and more business operations depend on technology and automation, I think we bank on our personal interactions being friendly and memorable only in the best of ways. I think we are hoping that the people we deal with will be like your wife – honest, true to themselves, but capable too.

    Can those 2 mix? I think you prove the point very well.

    Also, I think you’re a great communicator AND a pretty darned nice guy. So there. 🙂

  2. Patrick says:

    Margie – thanks for your thoughts (blushing)! I really believe kindness is a powerful thing – and as we become more engaged/attached to technology, I think we’re looking for meaning. For real connections. It’s just a matter of how businesses will embrace the notion of kindness and whether they have the patience!

  3. Sandra Parrotto says:

    LOVE LOVE LOVE, this post! really enjoyed reading it, liked pondering your points, could visualize both you and your wife in the tension of “to be kind or not to be”, appreciated your vulnerability and absolutely believe that kindness, in the way that you described it, is the only way to do business. I would also suggest that tough conversations, the ones that really produce growth in those that we do business with (both inside and outside of the business) must know that we understand what it feels like to be them. They have to know that we care about how they’re going to feel when we talk about the issue, when we ring the bell for action and when we have to demand more than they’d typically want to give. Kindness like that only results from personally relating to their experience, not from the mind but from the heart. Thanks for sharing this with us…

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