Let’s Get Specific About Kindness in Business

Entrepreneurs / 29th April 2024

Being kind in business has its limits – here’s why you shouldn’t go overboard.

Being kind to others is great when it comes to personal relationships. But is it great in business? 

Regular readers of business publications would have noticed an uptick in discussions around the value of kindness in the workplace and how it can be practiced effectively. Kindness has also been increasingly emphasised across various industries such as oil and gasfashion and beautyconsultingsecuritymarketingagriculture and banking, to name a few. It seems that kindness has been elevated as a key management practice and business strategy. 

Indeed, being kind is better than being unkind. Everyone prefers to work with someone who is friendly, generous and considerate than with someone who is aloof, selfish and uncaring. This much is clear. But thinking more carefully about this point gives an unsettling sense that it is lacking substance. It’s like a doctor who suggests medication to cure a disease, or exercise to improve your health. The key questions are: “What is the dose?” and “How much and what kind of exercise?”

As with many trendy concepts in business, the idea of kindness feels true but also vague. It is true that kindness helps in terms of how we are perceived by others, in negotiations and in our treatment of internal stakeholders and customers. However, recommending that individuals be kind in a business setting lacks specificity. It is easy to come up with ways to be kind to others. But it is harder to pinpoint just how kind we should be.

Kindness has its limits

Consider the following situation. You are given a certain amount of money – let’s say $10 – and an opportunity to be kind. This opportunity is as follows: There is another person in the room with you, and you can choose to give some of the money to them. You can give nothing; you can give the entire $10; or you can give anything in between. You don’t know this person, they cannot retaliate, and you will likely never encounter them again. So, it is really up to you.

How will the other person judge you, based on the amount you decide to give?

Academic research has studied this question across various countries. The findings revealed that as the amount you give increases from nothing to an equal split, the other person regards you more positively. But, importantly, giving half is optimal. Giving three quarters or even the entire sum doesn’t benefit your reputation any more than giving half the amount would. 

The result replicates across various monetary amounts. It was also observed across cultural contexts, including Western (United States, United Kingdom and Denmark) and Eastern (China, Russia and Turkey) ones. Although the situation described in this experiment is admittedly contrived, the findings replicate across other scenarios including donating to non-profits and sharing food with others. 

What is so special about giving half of what you have? Additional experiments clarified that what matters is the adherence to norms of acceptable behaviour. In the case of unearned money, an even split is the acceptable norm. In terms of dealing with customers, the necessary amount of kindness consists of meeting their expectations. When it comes to responding to work requests from colleagues, meeting expectations is also the key. 

People simply have such high appreciation for others who meet social expectations that there is little room for your reputation to go any higher when you exceed them. The key idea is understanding how to handle the trade-off between benefitting another person and benefitting yourself. This will enable us to understand how much kindness we should exhibit. To read the entire article, click here! To have CEO Magazine sent directly to your inbox, click here!

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