Just twenty-four hours before the deadline, nine-year-old Orion Jean’s parents entered him in a national speech contest. Jean worked diligently with his parents to prepare his thoughts and record a smartphone video for the Think Kindness competition in 2020 — an event designed to inspire acts of kindness in schools and communities.
Jean not only won the contest, but this now seventh-grader also put his prize winnings to work by creating the Race to Kindness, a series of events to spread kindness in his community. His first event was a Race to 500 Toys for hospitalized children in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.
I’m sure Jean was thinking about kindness among children in his community when he wrote his speech. But what Jean didn’t realize was how relevant his efforts to spread kindness were for leaders in corporate America today.
Stories like Jean’s underscore what I’ve always believed about being part of a community — at home, at work, or otherwise. Sharing kindness with others is so fundamental to collaborating with one another that it’s the difference between caving to crucible moments and solving your greatest problems. Putting people first establishes a baseline of trust that allows you to rally around a shared purpose. In contrast, putting teammates last puts you at odds with any cooperative efforts.
While Jean successfully completed his toy drive and later kicked off a challenge to donate 100,000 meals in 2021, we saw that incivility was on the rise in the workplace because people were dealing with social, political, and pandemic unrest. And with remote work creating new challenges for leaders as they sought ways to conjure culture, they found that emails, texts, and videoconferences replaced lunchroom chats, in-person meetings and impromptu connections.
As leaders gathered their wits about the new climate they faced, an important fact dawned on them: while this challenging environment is like none other, it still is a disruption, like so many that call on us to manufacture our own stability when there isn’t any to be had.*
Today, leaders realize that whatever “R word” you want to use after great — recession, resignation, regret, or reset — the leadership qualities that stand up to change are the classics like Jean’s kindness. Over the past two years, we have increasingly seen that when leaders lean in to the humanness of our employee relations, people respond with a renewed sense of engagement and purpose.
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Harvard Business Review’s Cannon Thomas and Laura Delizonna report that companies bucking abysmal retention trends, for instance, have improved job satisfaction by 48 percent with strategies like — you guessed it — putting people first. Thomas and Delizonna explain that this priority means approaching work with a positive sum game. In other words, “creating an environment where team members join together, rather than protect themselves from a zero sum game. This happens when team members relax into a trusting relationship that they feel is not just transactional but based in genuine care.”
Genuine care shouldn’t be confused with leniency or weakness. Kind leaders can be caring yet firm. They can make tough decisions. Kind leaders can be in charge and get things done. When leaders strike this balance of a caring demeanor with clarity of vision and fair expectations, team members experience dignity and feel respected as individuals. Interactions characterized by this balance are what researchers call a leading indicator of effective teams.
Jean’s latest goal that he completed was a race toward 500,000 donated books for kids who don’t have sufficient access to reading. Sometimes the universe sends us a message to be kinder to one another. This time, the universe sent us Jean. There are very few people in the world who shy away from kindness, so let’s run toward it. Better yet, why not make it a race?
*Disruptions due to the last few years of social, economic, and pandemic events have cut deeply into many industries, few more than real estate. Having built my career in this field, I’m looking forward to my next Off the Rak interview with real estate veteran Matt Khourie, formerly the chief executive officer of Trammell Crow Company, who retired in December of 2022. Matt and I will continue the conversation about putting people first. We’ll also talk about managing remote employees and how to regain your footing when the climate constantly changes. Join us on Thursday, March 16, at 10 a.m. MST! Add it to your calendar or RSVP on LinkedIn to be reminded.