The one crucial thing they didn’t teach at business school

Kindness is the glue that holds organisations together. Unfortunately it's often completely overlooked and undervalued.

Once upon a time I completed a business degree. I learned all about management theories and different ways to drive productivity. I became a master at management speak, adding to my lexicon an impressive array of important-sounding corporate buzzwords which were guaranteed to garner very serious nods from people in suits whenever introduced into a PowerPoint presentation.

My head was shoved full of graphs, statistics and acronyms. I learnt about accounting, finance, marketing and all the ways one could maximise shareholder profit. Gradually, I was indoctrinated into a rather cold corporate culture, which paid very close attention to numbers, but very little attention to people.

In all the lectures I attended and all the chunky textbooks I read, never was there a mention of kindness. Plain, basic old kindness – over the course of a whole business degree, it didn’t garner a single second’s consideration. Looking back, it seems a rather glaring oversight.

Scan back through your working life and it is very likely you will remember numerous occasions where kindness was lacking. Maybe you were shouted at, bullied or harassed. Perhaps you were micro-managed, expected to work ridiculous hours or denied leave when something important was happening in your life. Maybe you have been excluded, overlooked or ignored. In a time of suffering, perhaps no one checked in to see how you were doing. How did this lack of kindness affect you?

I’ve performed numerous jobs, experiencing workplace cultures that were good, bad and toxic. I’ve had great bosses, horrible bosses and bosses who shouldn’t have been allowed to look after a pot plant. If I were to draw a graph of my performance in relation to the level of kindness I experienced, the two factors would be highly correlated. In uncaring workplaces my motivation suffered. Often, so did my mental health. Rather than put up with it, there were times when I chose to walk away.

Unsurprisingly, most workers feel far more motivated when they know they are working for people who care about them. Kindness puts us at ease. It allows to feel part of something. It’s an incredible glue that holds organisations together.

We spend much of our lives at work. What we experience there can have a very direct impact on our mental health. When organisations are kind and create mentally healthy workplaces, it can have a strong protective impact on employees. When they don’t, it can easily cause or exacerbate mental conditions. The results can be plunging productivity, increased absences and high staff turnover.

For anyone experiencing a mental health issue, having kindness directed towards them can have a profoundly positive effect. Recent research by Dr Aimee Gayed of the Black Dog Institute found that by training managers to simply check in on employees who were experiencing mental health issues, sickness absence and other mental health impacts could be significantly reduced.

Unfortunately, for decades kindness has been pushed aside in favour of a corporate culture where ruthless efficiency has ruled. People have often been considered a blight on the balance sheet and cost-cutting CEO’s have been brought in to downsize, off-shore and automate jobs. Those who still have jobs have been expected to ‘toughen up’, take on heavier workloads and deal with more uncertainty and higher levels of stress. While this approach can do wonders for the share price (and the CEO’s bonus), it can also create a very harsh environment, in which it is very difficult for mental health to thrive.

There is a certain feedback loop which exists within every organisation. When we perceive an organisation doesn’t care about its employees, we often find it much harder to care about doing a good job. When we are surrounded by people who are stressed and reactive, we tend to become stressed and reactive ourselves. In a time of crisis and uncertainty, it’s very natural for our stress and fear to ramp up.

Kindness can change things.

While the Covid crisis has had many devastating impacts, one positive is a shift in corporate culture. All organisations have been forced to re-examine how they work and many are seeing the benefits of being kinder, more flexible and less caught up in the old ways of doing things. At long last, many organisations are making workplace mental health a true priority and examining ways to nurture the wellbeing of staff.

The simple fact is, kindness works incredibly well. While it’s not a complete mental health strategy, it is a brilliant starting point. With any luck it will become the next hot management trend. I hope it finds its way into textbooks, lectures, PowerPoint presentations and the heads of a whole generation of Business students.

In measuring the success of organisations, we would do well to look more broadly than a stock price. Were we to evaluate CEO performance based on the mental health of staff, there’s no doubt we would experience an incredible transformation.

While that may take some time, we do not have to wait. Kinder workplaces are very achievable and through small, simple acts, we can all make a very real difference.