The signature of my first book, In Search of Excellence (written with Bob Waterman), was a six-word phrase: “Hard is soft. Soft is hard.” As Bob and I examined the problems besetting US corporations circa 1980, we believed they and their advisers had got things backwards.
We said that in the end it was the supposedly “hard numbers”, so readily manipulable as we have seen of late, and the “plans”, that are so often flights of fantasy, that were soft.
And the true “hard stuff” was what the business schools and their ilk undervalued as soft: people issues, character and the quality of relationships inside and beyond the organisation’s walls.
Thinking about all this led me to the softest word of all — and the word with perhaps the most lasting impact in dealings among humans: kindness.”
TOM PETERS, Financial Times (August, 23 2010)
Kindness? In the workplace? Is the fiery, in-your-face Tom Peters getting soft in his old age? Of course he isn’t.
Kindness is one of the most underrated qualities at work, one that you should be thinking a lot more about after reading this.
As Peters points out, “Hard is soft. Soft is hard.” The numbers in our plans that we see as “hard” really are not.
They are conjectures, calculations, suppositions. They may or may not be true.
Yet most corporations run their businesses on an “it’s all about the numbers” ethos. What numbers? Those things in your spreadsheets that may not even be true?
What, in fact, generates the numbers? Ah, that would be the “soft” things: people, motivation, inspiration, service, relationships, character.
Now those things are really hard — which is why so few of us are able to get them right.
Back to that word, kindness. Are people kind in your organisation?
I seriously doubt it. Most modern organisations tend to be cauldrons of intense personal competition, back stabbing, political intrigue, gossip and deceit.
Cauldrons of competition
They are that way because leaders allow them to be: they set the tone and example.
Most organisations are unpleasant places to work, so is it any real surprise that little good work gets done in them?
When people are unkind to each other, they are also unkind to customers.
When customers detect unkindness, their bond with your brand is broken.
When brands are tainted, so is repeat business.
In Kenya, it is rare to encounter workplaces where people are smiling and happy; where they are doing each other little favours by instinct; where they feel a human connection and a transcendental sense of belonging.
Chief executives often wonder why employees display such little passion at work, why they are unable to engage with their work.
But why would you expect that, when the workplace you have created is cruel and toxic?
The reverse is more true: lower-cadre employees are routinely belittled and humiliated by supervisors; peers are undermined by malicious rumours; customers are treated like irritants. You think about it: how is such an environment going to create any type of greatness?
How are we going to produce world-class companies if we can’t get this poison out of the organisational bloodstream?
So go for kindness, leaders, and don’t just do it in this season of goodwill.
Set the correct example yourself and demonstrate little kind acts on a daily basis.
Search out those toxic people who are perpetually bullying and undermining others, and get rid of them.
Promote and reward people for their ability to create good feeling and harmony in others.
Embed helpfulness and mutual support in your corporate culture.
At the end of the day, business isn’t about the numbers at all. It’s about the people who generate the numbers.
Your task as a leader isn’t to deliver the numbers at any cost — it is to create the relationships that deliver the numbers at no cost to the human spirit.