Kindness: the best-kept secret of the most productive teams

Jan 15, 2020

6 mins

Kindness: the best-kept secret of the most productive teams
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.

The focus on optimising software and systems in the workplace sometimes makes it easy to forget that a company’s success depends first and foremost on its employees and its teams. Over the past two decades, collaborative work has increased by more than 50%. It takes up nearly three-quarters of an employee’s time, which means it’s no longer seen as a good thing to “do it alone”. Kindness and a willingness to help others have become essential qualities to bring out the best in a team.

To win the productivity race, a company not only has to think about the way each employee works, but above all about the way its employees do the work together.

Searching for the winning formula

Google set itself a challenge in 2012: to discover the secrets behind the most efficient teams. Researchers studied nearly 180 teams within dozens of parameters—internal organisation, age, complementary skills, common interests and so on—without finding any proof that the team members’ make-up had an impact on productivity. It was only by looking at the norms which defined a handful of the most productive teams that they began to get a glimpse of the first elements of this magic formula.

What are norms?

Norms are a mixture of traditions, behaviours and written or unwritten rules that define how a group functions. They are very influential and transcend individual behaviour by offering new ways of working. This is why some employees behave differently when working alone compared with in a team. The group balance is therefore quite fragile: a new member who doesn’t adhere to these implicit norms can threaten the overall performance and harmony of the team.

The two behaviour traits shared by the star teams

The Google study identified two traits that all the most productive teams have in common:

  • Everyone in the team spoke roughly the same amount. The researchers noted that it was necessary to let all the team members have the opportunity to speak and to share their point of view.
  • The members of these teams are empathetic. In fact, good teams bring together people who are able to intuitively understand the feelings of others based on facial expressions, tone of voice and other non-verbal cues.

Opportunity to speak + empathy = psychological safety

The chance for team members to express themselves freely and their capacity for empathy create what is called psychological safety. Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, defined this phenomenon in her TED talk as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. It is psychological safety that allows kindness to be expressed.

This kindness creates an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect within which each individual can give the best of themselves, take initiative, speak about their mistakes and learn to fix them. The result? A bona fide tribe of good guys who work faster, more efficiently and in a more collaborative way. It’s not that complicated, you should have just listened to your mum when she said, “Be nice to the other kids.” Otherwise, no dessert!

The limitations of kindness

Psychological safety is the first step towards building an efficient team because it creates an environment where team members can freely express kindness. However, kindness alone is not enough to encourage productivity. It must, of course, be combined with other factors: clear objectives, an appropriate corporate culture and so on. Ultimately, kindness has its limits, which are expressed more on an individual level but can impact the equilibrium of a team.

Poorly managed kindness can add to your workload

The kindest employees often end up with a heavier workload, according to Professor Mark Bolino of the University of Oklahoma, who calls this “escalating citizenship”. Their professional situation can quickly deteriorate and cause them to collapse under the pressure, which makes them unable to accomplish their main tasks. This is also known as “people-pleasing” syndrome, which happens when you have difficulty imposing boundaries in a professional setting.

… which is not always fully appreciated

Employees who naturally offer to help are not always appreciated internally. In large companies, they may be required to divide their knowledge or time between such a large number of projects that the volume and diversity of their work is difficult for their manager or colleagues to even imagine.

Kindness is sometimes viewed poorly

We need to be cautious about offering unsolicited help for many reasons, especially in a manager/employee relationship, according to a study led by Professor Russell Johnson, a management expert at the University of Michigan. First, it’s difficult to get a complete overview of a colleague’s problem as an outside observer. It can also sometimes take longer to explain the context of a problem to a third party than it is for someone to just solve it themselves. Finally, most people prefer to find the solutions to a problem on their own.

And does gender play a role?

An experiment led by Professor Madeline Heilman, a psychologist at New York University, showed that a man who stayed late at the office to help out a colleague was 14% more appreciated than a woman who had done the same. Women have to deal with the stereotype that female colleagues are naturally more helpful and attentive. Within a company, they are expected to embody kindness and are penalised if their behaviour doesn’t match expectations.

So, is it better to be mean?

Being unpleasant can move you up the career ladder, according to Professor Laurent Auzoult, a lecturer in social psychology at the University of Franche-Comté. “Higher status, a higher salary and more opportunities for promotion are naturally given to an angry manager rather than a soft manager,” he says. Fortunately, numerous studies suggest the opposite is true. So, if in doubt, be nice.

How do you spread kindness in a team?

Group norms come from company culture as much as they come from the individuals who make up a team. If you ask employees to listen to each other more or to be attentive to their colleagues’ feelings, it won’t produce instant results. Creating this feeling of psychological safety is therefore a challenge in itself!

However, hope is not lost. You have the power to encourage changes in your colleagues’ behaviour. The good news is that kindness is contagious and you can nurture the conditions that help it to thrive.

Lead by example

According to a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the extra-milers—those who always go above and beyond—can improve and raise the performance of an entire team. These individuals, who are often singled out and rewarded by their managers, are living proof that kindness can become a recognised and appreciated quality. Their ability to spontaneously offer assistance and surpass themselves sets an example and encourages others to do the same.

Highlight the benefits

Explain the benefits of collaboration and of helping one another to everyone on your team. To convince them, hit them with the facts: numbers, statistics, reports, scientific studies and so on.

Encourage them to talk about their feelings

There is a need to encourage discussion with coworkers who might feel uncomfortable about opening up in a professional setting. No one wants to have to pretend to be someone they are not or to hide a part of their personality at work. For team members to feel confident and to be fully themselves, they must be able to freely share their concerns without the fear of being penalised.

Learn to filter and prioritise requests

If you show that you know how to be helpful without getting overwhelmed, you demonstrate the best part of your kindness and encourage others to do the same. You get all the bonuses with none of the downsides.

Recognise and measure kindness

Network analysis, cross-evaluations or creating knowledge-sharing sheets can help measure and quantify value-added performance when results are not easy to see. For your part, learn to recognise evidence of caring behaviour and consider showing gratitude for and communicating shared successes.

Good behaviour, just like bad behaviour, has a tendency to be contagious within a company. Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, refers to this as “positive conformity”, whereby people who think that others are kind and generous become kinder and more generous themselves.

Ultimately, the conditions that create psychological safety—the freedom of expression and empathy—are the same as the ones we use to create personal bonds with family and friends. This need for human connection is as important at work as it is anywhere else. Collaboration and kindness are one of the answers to many of the structural problems affecting the business world, and the first companies to integrate these qualities will rise above their competitors. There’s no point being a pushover or a villain. In the long term, the only winning behaviour within a team is to respect yourself by respecting others.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: WTTJ

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