Our New Role: Bringing Kindness To Work

In 2014 I wrote a speech titled “Simply Irresistible,” describing the need to rethink the concepts of employee engagement. That speech, which turned into a research model, described how meaningful work, sound management, an inclusive environment, growth, and leadership were all part of building an irresistible work experience.

Since then there have been a flood of new studies on the employee experience (often called EX), and each shows the same thing. People want meaningful jobs, fair pay, transparency, and growth. 

But most of all, they want kindness.

Kindness?  What role does that play in a business?

It turns out kindness at work has now become fundamental. While inclusion, fair pay, and development remain important, kindness and connection are now essential.

New Research on Loneliness

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot. Last year we conducted a CHRO Summit at UC Berkeley and the Greater Good Science Center presented their research on happiness and wellbeing.

What they’ve learned, after two decades of research, is that the most important things in our lives are compassion, empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, mindfulness, social connection, and awe. These are all human issues, and all revolve around kindness.

For me, it was a wake-up call. After two decades of meeting with hundreds of companies, I realized I had never seen these words in company mission statements, competency models or leadership values.

Just this month Cigna published its annual study on Loneliness in the America. The results are frightening: they call it an epidemic. 52% of Americans say they feel alone most or all of the time, a jump of 6% in the last year. And 38% say they “do not have close relationships with other people.” 

The essence of the book “Bowling Alone,” which was published almost twenty years ago, has now come true. We are living in a world where social media, the internet, emails, and TV dominate our time – leaving many of us unable to create meaningful relationships in our lives. And young people are the loneliest of all.


And all the job-hopping we experience may be making this worse. The Cigna research points out that the more frequently we change jobs, the more likely we will be lonely. It takes time to build relationships at work, and when we leave many of these are left behind.

loneliness and tenure

When I was forced to retire from Deloitte, I had to say goodbye to some of my closest friends at work. Luckily I’ve changed jobs many times and have found a way to keep in touch with many generations of associates – but when you leave a job the feelings of loss, loneliness, and isolation are real.

Anxiety And Stress

At work, the level of anxiety and stress is at an all-time high. I talk with HR departments about this almost every day, and we are bending over backward to understand, redesign, and improve the employee experience as a result.  

In fact, IBM’s most recent study of skills gaps shows that skills in stress management, time management, and dealing with uncertainty are the most in-demand skills of all. These Power Skills, as I call them, are not only complex in nature, they center around being kind to others and kind to ourselves as well.

In The Public Sphere, Kindness Seems Lacking

And further adding to this need, there is a sense of growing despair in the economy. Despite the growth in GDP and the stock market, this economic cycle has not been kind. As  David Leonhardt describes in the New York Times, more than half the workers in the US have not seen wage growth for decades. 

In my city of Oakland, homelessness seems worse than in the slums of Mexico.  My family and I spent time bringing food to homeless people this season and I saw first-hand that these people wanted kindness most of all. Many of them simply lost their jobs or fell ill and couldn’t work, and kindness is all they want.

(I have to say, this last year I became a fan of Marianne Williamson.  She did a pretty good job of applying the principles of kindness to public policy.)

So let me leave you with a thought. 

What We Can Do

We, in HR, have an important role to play. We can help bring kindness into our companies.

While the dimensions of Simply Irresistible are important, the human element is most important of all. Kindness means truly caring about others, and acting and behaving in a kind and forgiving way.

As you plan for the year ahead (my predictions report will be out soon), I urge you to consider a few things:

  • Is your management rewarded for listening, caring, and understanding people on the team?
  • When people make mistakes, do you forgive them and offer them an opportunity to grow?
  • If your business slows down, do you let people go or do you find a way to help them stay?
  • Are your products and services kind to your customers, their families, and the environment?
  • Do people come to work feeling they can be themselves and they will be accepted for who they are?

These are not business or HR strategies, they’re sound principles for life.

Among the vitriolic political rhetoric around the world, we can make work a place of peace. Let’s take inspiration from Martin Luther King, when he said “find a voice in a whisper.” 

I mentioned in my reading list that one of my favorite books last year was Bob Iger’s book “The Ride of a Lifetime.” One of the things you see in Iger’s career is his consistent focus on supporting people, understanding people, and giving people the opportunity to grow. This is not just “growth mindset,” it’s kindness at its core.

(Wegman’s, one of the most highly regarded grocery chains in the country, has the value “We care about the well-being and success of every person.” I’ve met execs at Wegman’s, and this is a kind company.)

As we focus the year on employee retention, engagement, and productivity, make sure you bring the concepts of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity to work. Right now the world needs a good dose of these remedies, and we know they make life better for everyone.

(If you want to learn all about the best way to redesign your workplace for kindness, join the Josh Bersin Academy. Our newest programs People as Competitive Advantage, Performance Management Reimagined, and the upcoming Employee Experience Workshop will get you on the right path.)