Nahla Summers spent fifteen happy years as a senior leader in the corporate sphere working all over the world. Then in just a moment, her personal life circumstances took a tragic but ultimately life-changing turn. She is now a social change maker, a transformative coach, a podcaster, an accidental adventurer and a speaker. She is also the author of two books: her debut was ‘44 Rays of Sunshine’, an award-winning story about how she overcame adversity that has been inspiring people around the world. Additionally, she has been awarded a Points of Light Award from the British Prime Minister for “transforming the concept of sponsorship”, after cycling 3000 miles across America and walking 500 miles from southern to northern England, asking people to show their support by simply doing an act of kindness for a stranger, rather than sponsoring with money. As the founder of the community interest company, Sunshine People, Nahla takes on a new challenge every year and in so doing, discovers something new that she can share about the power that kindness has on people.
Her second book, ‘A Culture of Kindness’, outlines her powerful theory on how we can bring kindness into the workplace and not only improve wellbeing and be happier, but also more productive and therefore profitable. Nahla’s podcast interviews an eclectic mix of people including CEOs, peers of the Realm, authors, award winners and performing artists, to name but a few. Seeking to change the way that people and businesses interact and constructively co-exist through her speaking, writing and podcasts, she hopes to positively influence how we live today and work together towards a more sustainable future.
HK: Nahla, thank you for agreeing to talk to us about the topic of kindness, which was already high on the agenda as an emerging concept in the management of businesses even before the emergence of the recent coronavirus crisis. We are all clearly having to take more account of each other under these circumstances. What does kindness mean when it comes to the actions and behaviours of business leaders?
NS: Kindness does not come down to one single action. It is not bringing the biscuits into work – although that helps! – or simply saying yes to everything in order to try and make people around you feel good. It is about having honest conversations when things aren’t working out. It is about communicating tough updates from the business and being honest with people. It’s about listening – really listening – to people within your charge, being courageous about making change and doing so respectfully. When someone isn’t working out in a role within a business, kindness is being honest with them, helping them into their ideal role either within or outside the business. Kindness is walking in the shoes of other colleagues, seeing things from their point of view and empathising with them as a result. The list goes on and on but in truth it is about being vulnerable enough to see their workforce as human beings with lives outside of work that inevitably impacts them within the workplace. Kindness will become a key aspect of future conversations on employee wellbeing, which will ensure we are no longer ‘triaging’ the rising levels stress and anxiety we are seeing in modern workplaces. I posit that whenever you look at people- and behaviour-linked challenges within organisations, unkindness is often the root cause. I was recently asked, “what about competency, if someone just isn’t succeeding in the job?” My response was to say someone in the firm will often have put them in that position to fill a gap, they have struggled with the workload and ultimately failed. That is an ‘unkindness’ on the part of a leader who has not considered the whole other person involved – their capabilities, their limitations. Kindness is required to accept and resolve that situation, but all too often, conflict is the outcome. My belief is that it is time for change.
HK: In your opinion, why has kindness in business not been commonly considered in the past?
NS: Kindness is seen as something you promote within a child’s upbringing and it is taken for granted that people have been well brought up and know how to behave. Consequently, it has not been considered to be a necessary factor for consideration in the workplace. However, there are some key people bringing the kindness conversation onto the modern leadership agenda. Kindness within business is much more complex then playground kindness, too! We have generally run businesses by putting distance between employees. We have run them with action-oriented key performance indicators and all kinds of jargon-based measures better associated with the workings of a machine than a group of people. We say we do, but at the heart of it, it is rarely about the people. Profits have been simply valued as a financial outcome and success hasn’t been associated with the wellbeing of the people. I am generalising to an extent, although the necessity for change has been acknowledged, such as by the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs of major businesses that made a clear statement on this topic last year.
HK: What key benefits can the application of kindness in business culture bring to an organisation and its employees?
NS: The benefits are vast and endless – reductions in bad things, increases in good things. Improved employee retention, reduced sickness, increased productivity, reduced stress, better staff wellbeing, improved strategy and processes, improved customer retention and of course the main event, as a consequence of all the above – increased profits and revenue.
HK: How can kindness be maintained and applied during the ‘tough times’ and during difficult or stressful conversations?
NS: The theory that I lay out in ‘A Culture of Kindness’ is all about building the ‘culture of kindness house’. There are several elements to this but the foundations are the key to maintaining the culture of the ‘household’, if you will. The foundations are termed as the ‘Organisational Morals’ or, if you prefer, rules of engagement, and these need to be adhered to and referred back to, especially under stressed conditions. Business leaders looking to promote kindness in their workplaces must from the outset decide how and what will be expected and accepted in terms of behaviours. Kindness is about honesty and so whilst this may involve some difficult conversations, people will respect you for having the courage to point these things out. We all know when something isn’t right the longer it is left, the worse the reaction will be.
HK: Can kindness always be expressed appropriately, without unintentionally negatively impacting the professionalism of a workplace?
NS: Kindness should be viewed as a key aspect of professionalism. Kindness is laid out in the theory as seven core values: Gratitude, Trust, Integrity, Empathy, Time, Connection, and Courage. These values represent the very essence of professionalism; they characterise a workplace and an approach to work that accepts that we are all human beings. To get the best out of people, we must treat them as such.
HK: Kindness is a behaviour that is often learnt whilst growing up, as you mentioned. People are brought up in many different ways and in many differing sets of circumstances and as such, some people may simply grow to be naturally kinder than others. Can kindness be taught?
NS: Yes, I believe it can. Most people I have interviewed have somewhere along the line shared a story of someone in their childhood who showed them kindness as a behaviour and so we know for certain it is mimicked. Of course, there are factors that can change this in the human makeup. However as part of my research and social enterprise I completed a physical challenge and when I do them I ask that instead of donating to a Just Giving page, people show support by doing an act of kindness for a stranger. We collate these on a website in order to raise awareness. The stories that come out are wide-reaching and inspire a great deal of hope. Ordinary people have become consciously kinder. When we have a conversation on kindness, we have the power to change.
HK: Additionally, real cultural change tends to come ‘from the top’ – can established, accomplished and successful leaders who might be kindness cynics, and may have achieved success by using other characteristics be convinced of the value of this behaviour within the workplace?
NS: We have a divisive society, look at media or politics as a core example of this. However, this divisiveness has moved us very slowly forwards and in fact in recent times seen us move backwards. In truth, success is whatever you deem it to be. If you want to simply make money, then anyone can do that in many ways. If success is about how the world sees you or you want to be remembered as someone who made a change in the world or people felt inspired by your leadership or anything similar, then looking at a culture of kindness theory is a way to embed that simply and easily.
HK: Thank you so much for your thoughts and insights on this important conversation, Nahla.
Quick Questions on Kindness in the Modern Workplace with Valeria Locatelli, Chief Internal Auditor at M&G Investments
HK: Valeria, you were honoured in 2018’s ’50 Leading Light’ List (supported by the FT and Oxford Saïd Business School), which recognises the contribution of kind leaders to business, the economy and society. As a leader in the financial services industry yourself, what does kindness in the workplace look like to you?
VL: Kindness to me means being mindful of colleagues, understanding the impact of business decisions on them, whether good or bad, and respecting that this will trigger emotional reactions that needs to be acknowledged and managed with respect. It also means being mindful of the journey colleagues are on, in life and in their careers, and tailoring the support and management provided accordingly. It is all about being considerate and not being afraid of showing warmth, caring and generosity.
HK: In your experience, is kindness embraced as a valuable trait in business?
VL: In my experience in business what is valued ins getting to the desired outcomes taking colleagues along the way, keeping morale and standards equally high, and leading by example. Being considerate and mindful of colleagues, respecting their journeys and motivations, in my experience does get to better outcomes and certainly creates an environment of trust and psychological safety. So, in short, it has been wherever I have worked.
HK: To be truly kind requires empathy, and often requires an individual to make a decision that isn’t in their best interest. In your view, could this create a conflict or impact the ability of a business to invest in having an inherently kind culture?
VL: No, I don’t think so, it is all about achieving the desired outcomes in the right way. Of course, there will be times when colleagues are disappointed by business decisions or events, it is then a case of being mindful of that, and anticipate this by being clear on the reasons, and thinking ahead what the different future options might be. It is also about listening and acknowledging any distress, allowing colleagues time to come to terms with negative events.
HK: Thank you, Valeria.