Productive Kindness and Resourcefulness

So this seems to be my new “thing”. I am totally obsessed with finding the sweet spot between “ensuring performance and results” and “being human” in business.

The COVID pandemic has highlighted one of the biggest dilemmas in our modern world of work, how do we find the balance between showing empathy at work while not dropping the ball on productivity and performance.

I read an article by my good friend and business associate @RenateJute in which she speaks of the difference between having resources and being resourceful. Her article’s concept is that we will never necessarily have enough resources but being resourceful means that we can optimize our resources, which sometimes negates the need for more resources.

For me, that sums up the essence of making Productive Kindness work in the business context. What impacts most on managers’ and business owners’ ability to empathize with employees is the fear that either their kindness will be taken advantage of, or that challenges may last indefinitely and the team member will become a drain on the business. As with all things, fear is a pretty powerful motivator, and with (predominantly big business) not being geared toward meeting out huge heaps of kindness, it is easier to stick with a norm where humanity and empathy are side-lined for the sake of policies and procedures which apparently have fairness as their guidepost.

Where does that fear come from? I believe it has two origins. The first is a lack of trust. Organizations that practice strict control over their employees show a lack of trust in their employees. If employees are trusted, they are allowed more autonomy and freedom; therefore, they can use more discretion in their work. A common response to this kind of statement is that things need to be done to a certain standard, or within certain regulatory guidelines, etc. I don’t doubt that, but even within such constraints, the question can be asked, “do you trust your employees to do it well?” or “must your force them to do their jobs well?”. As I have had this conversation often in the business context, I know that the answer is the latter, often followed by “but they simply cannot be trusted because [fill in any of clichéd beliefs about employees]”. Setting aside the obvious question around hiring practices, if the business consistently hires individuals who are not trustworthy, the answer I never hear is, “they cannot be trusted because I don’t know how to teach them to trust me”. That’s right. You heard it here first. The problem with trust is that leaders do not model it by giving trust. This is a clear indicator of an organization that does not deal with employees as humans.

The second source of fear is, in my view, inequality in levels of respect between employees and their managers. We most often feel fear when we do not feel empowered in our interactions with each other. Oddly, I believe this comes from paternalistic business models, specifically across levels of the hierarchy. Traditionally managers have been seen as “benevolent parents” or “critical parents” and employees as the “family” they need to take care of. As anyone with a background in psychology and, specifically, Transactional Analysis will tell you, that is never the most productive situation. In this case, especially with benevolent managers, you land up in a situation where you are taking responsibility for another person’s life situation. Being a critical manager points us back to the organization that is more driven towards productivity and business. As per the Transactional Analysis model, if instead, everyone treated each other as adults that were accustomed to taking responsibility for their own lives, we could work with each other to devise a support structure that meets the productivity and human needs and also removes the possibility of the manager being taken advantage of.

By becoming self-aware of our interactions with others, it becomes possible to identify areas where support can be provided without putting the business at risk. It also will make it easier to empower those around us and value their contribution.

Congratulations, you have started on the path to Productive Kindness already, just by paying a little more attention to the individuals around you.