Since the release of my book, The Not So Subtle Art of Caring: Letters on Leadership (2022, John Hunt), one of the questions I am asked most frequently is, “How do you operationalize kindness?” Sometimes, I am wont to answer, “How do some operationalize micromanaging people or otherwise beating the heck out of them?”
I ask the question with all the seriousness in the world and no disrespect intended. For operationalizing a culture of kindness is quite literally the opposite of what has been happening in most Western businesses for hundreds of years, where top-down, autocratic, command and control narcissists who talk more than they listen, criticize more than they encourage, beat down more than they build up and focus more on improving their own circumstances vs. those of others have roamed freely. The operational alternative to that is a simple two-word proposition – perhaps the greatest leadership tip ever, “Just care.”
I spoke with Paul McCarthy, CEO of PaulMac Leadership and a thought leader on the future of work. I asked him what advice he had for organizations thinking about how they might operationalize a kinder, more caring style of doing business. He had similar advice. He told me, “Stop overthinking how to operationalize kindness in your organization and approach to leadership. You’re missing the point. Just do the opposite of what you think is unkind. Try it. When it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, simply refine your approach and try it again. Simple. Just do it.”
When our focus and priorities shift from whatever we had placed in a leading position to simply caring, the lens through which we will view everything will change. The system we use to evaluate everything will change. Even the principal values that guide and inform the business will change. That’s because the business will begin asking, “Who?” instead of, “What?”
I want to be clear at the onset that the ultimate objective of the firm does not change, nor does its fiduciary obligation to its shareholders, or those it serves, in the case of a non-profit. Business is, after all, a game in which score is kept. The goal to maximize returns does not change; it never will. Winning remains the object of the game. What does change is the way that people are valued and treated in the process. What also changes is what can be tolerated.
For far too long, those in positions having direct responsibility for or influence over the hiring of significant leadership positions have discounted the importance of conscientiousness related traits among the “Big 5” when considering new hires and promotions. Worse, when dealing with known attitude problems, insubordinates, or abusers of others who clearly depart from the values and culture of the organization, it has become customary to overlook these defects because the employee, “is just too good at their job,” or has somehow been deemed, “Irreplaceable.” So, the organization consciously keeps known detractors from the culture and adds to them, believing that hard skills are significantly more valuable than soft.
This however is folly. Clichés become clichés because they are true. And that applies wholly to the one about bad apples. Even one associate who detracts from what you are trying to accomplish culturally, no matter how good they are at their job, will destroy everything you are trying to build. So do yourself and every person who works there a favor and help find these misfits a place outside of your organization where being their particular brand of extra will be OK – because it can’t ever be OK at your place. So, that’s step one:
- Make sure everyone in the boat wants to be in the boat (by ensuring that everyone is 100% committed to living out the values of the organization). Next, put others first, by making sure that everyone:
- Knows their role
- Knows how to do their role
- Knows why their role is important
- Knows their life will improve when the goals of the organization are met.
Intermediately, operationalizing a more caring organization is no more complicated than ensuring that every single associate has what they need to be successful in their role, making certain that every associate knows and can repeat both the key strategies and values of the business, and committing to the notion that mistakes should be encouraged, with no one losing their dignity when they occur.
This is the heart of true accountability, according to David Rogers, President at Shop 4D and a coach and consultant for top-performing independent automotive repair shops – an industry desperately in need of kindness. “Accountability isn’t a one-way street,” says Rogers. “If mistakes can only happen at the bottom of the chain of command, then the organization isn’t truly committed to creating a healthy, caring culture. I expect my leaders to publicly accept responsibility when they fall short. It’s not about some sort of public flogging, but about showing that we are all accountable for the same goal – protecting the company, protecting the customer, and protecting each other.”
As a leader, you must believe, beyond any doubt, that it is not about you, and that your principal goal along the way to achieving the goals of your shareholders is to make yourself really, really small so that others can become really, really big. When and if you can accomplish these things, you will have operationalized a kinder, more caring organization.
It truly is no more complicated than that. It is, though, like most else in life, a choice – a simple, wonderful choice. It is a choice between no longer prioritizing traits that correlate to emerging leadership and instead choosing better traits that correlate to effective leadership. It’s a choice to refuse to harbor associates who can’t or won’t align to the values of the organization. It’s a choice to put others first by executing the simple steps to operationalize a caring culture. And it’s a choice to make yourself small so that others might get big. “Truly, the act of making yourself look smaller while making others around you look bigger is a humble act of caring, said Rafael Lugioyo, Dr. BA, Managing Partner of Southeastern Investments, and a first-generation American, who, with his brother, built then sold one of the largest tire distribution businesses in the southeast United States. Dr. Lugioyo went on to share with me a story of being constantly recognized for treating the janitor as well as or better than anyone else in the building. “I always remind these people that when I came to this country, my mother, myself, and my older brother were janitors. Lifting others up is far easier when you remember where it is you came from.”
See, it’s not hard to comprehend. It’s mostly a matter of treating people the way they want to be treated – all day, every day – especially when it gets in the way of things that make you feel like you matter more. Because here’s a fundamental truth about life and business: until people recognize that they matter more than anything in the world to you, then you and what matters to you won’t matter to them at all. It’s just simple organizational dynamics. And it’s what makes the path to operationalizing the not so subtle art of caring not so hard to comprehend. It is, in fact, simple: Just care.