2017 Volume 20 Issue 1

Kindness and Self-Interest

Kindness and Self-Interest

Why Treating Employees Well Makes Such Good Sense

Despite the challenges facing organizations, in a world that has become increasingly competitive, leaders of organizations must become students of human relations and recognize that managing by command and control rarely works in today’s economy. Today’s Millennials, like employees from all generations, want to be empowered, treated with a genuine concern for their welfare, and acknowledged as “You/s,” or as valued individuals and ends in and of themselves, rather than as “It/s,” or as organizational commodities treated as a means to their organization’s success. In fact, a growing body of research confirms that treating employees with kindness is actually in an organization’s best interests—in addition to being just good human relations and common sense.[1]

Treating People with Care

In this article the author will attempt to provide today’s leaders with insights into the nature of kindness as a leadership concept—a foundation virtue for building employee loyalty, increasing commitment and trust—in addition to honoring the moral obligation of leaders and organizations to serve others and to help them to fulfill their highest potential, an obligation that Max DePree labeled “a covenantal duty.”[2] Kindness encompasses treating people with care, consideration, and personal concern for their welfare, growth, and wholeness and is often thought of as the foundation for love, trust, and forgiveness.[3] Benevolent concern for others, accompanied by kind actions that demonstrate the sincerity of that concern, are the basis for building trust between individuals and organizations.[4] Kindness is a foundation concept of servant leadership, authentic leadership, and transformational leadership, but is often overlooked by leaders who fail to appreciate its value.

Kindness, though focused on doing what is best for others, also benefits the person who is kind—whether in individual relationships or within the context of business. Michael Beer has explained that treating people with caring and a commitment to their welfare is not only a humane way of interacting, but results in greater profits, better service, and increased innovation in organizations that combine caring with competence.[5] University of Michigan’s management expert Kim Cameron has explained that kindness and treating people with the intent to help them to become their best is a part of a leader’s responsibility as a virtuous leader.[6]

Worth and Potential

Management guru, Stephen R. Covey defined the importance of “communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.”[7] It is in treating people as they can become that they are empowered to discover their greatness and redefine their lives—and that treatment is a transforming gift that enhances a person’s self-image and enables them to magnify the contributions that they can make in the world.

Great leaders create the trust achieved by kindness by not just listening to employee feedback but by responding to their suggestions and encouraging employees to offer their ideas for improving the organization. Such leaders select, train, and reward managers and supervisors at all levels who understand the importance of treating employees as key contributors and confirm that managers and supervisors understand how creating partnerships with employees builds greater commitment, more productive teams, and improved performance. NUCOR Steel, for example, engages its employees in teams that are empowered to interview, evaluate, and select new team members—team members who share in generating team-based bonuses and whose performance makes the company and the entire team more profitable.

Understanding Kindness

Companies with leaders who understand the value of kindness recognize that the message that they send to employees about their value pays off in greater commitment, increased employee engagement, and much greater extra-mile behavior. In a work world where one-third of employees believe that their employers do not care about them, the decline in employee loyalty, commitment, and innovation is costing companies an estimated $500 billion per year. According to the latest Gallup poll, a whopping 70 percent of employees are not engaged at work and more than 20 percent describe themselves as negatively engaged. In contrast, high commitment and high performance organizations that integrate policies and systems to treat employees as highly valued, empowered, and trusted organizational partners have not only greater innovation, more creativity, and better customer service but are measurably more profitable.

Many people share the same hopes, dreams, and aspirations and those feelings motivate individuals to become their best and to improve. When leaders look into the mirror and acknowledge their own humanity and desires, they are more likely to appreciate that their employees are much like them in wanting to be cared about, treated fairly, and valued as individuals. And, despite the current thinking of many management textbooks, employees are not “human resources” or costs to be minimized.[8] They create the profits for organizations, but they are far more than profit centers.[9] Each person, each employee, deserves to be treated with kindness.[10]

Empowering Employees

As Robert E. Quinn and Gretchen Spreitzer have clarified, the empowering benefit of wise leaders enables others to not only make a powerful impact within their organization, but to empower others to expand their capabilities, increase their competencies, and transform themselves.[11] Thus, kindness is a complex transformational behavior that demonstrates that one person understands and cares genuinely about another’s welfare, growth, and wholeness,[12] and acknowledges that treating others kindly both empowers the individual and increases the effectiveness of the organization.[13] Kindness is far more than just a benevolent intention to do that which is good. It is an action—even if that action is just a look, a smile, a nod of the head, or a gentle touch.[14] Kindness demonstrates a personal interest in another and the ability to understand their struggles, their needs, and their desires.

Kind leaders pay close attention to the needs of their employees—literally before they enter their company’s doors to begin work. They establish onboarding processes that demonstrate concern for employees transitioning into a new job. They anticipate employee needs and reach out to confirm that employee concerns are understood and that employees have the resources to accomplish desired outcomes. Kind organizations keep employees informed, recognize employees’ desires to succeed, anticipate the barriers that make work difficult, and respond quickly when employees ask for help. As importantly, these leaders and organizations honor their word and keep commitments made to employees. They build trust by being trustworthy.

High trust and high performance organization cultures that combine a commitment to people with policies, programs, and systems that treat people as valued partners are inevitably more profitable than comparable companies. But, and much more importantly, leaders who treat others with high trust and confidence in their capabilities, empower employees when they struggle with a challenging task that requires courage and persistence.[15]

Kindness Makes a Difference

Creating an organizational culture that values employees begins at the top and requires an authentic and committed belief that employees are truly both the key to the organization’s success and important as unique individuals with talents, passions, and goals in addition to rights and responsibilities. DePree explained that effective leaders recognize that their responsibility included being “a servant and a debtor” to employees. Organizations owe their employees much more than a pay check in a transactional exchange for work performed. As DePree explained, employers have the obligation to help their employees to succeed in addition to pursuing company profits. Steven Covey described that obligation as helping employees to “discover their greatness.”

University of Michigan management expert, Kim Cameron, has often noted that treating employees well pays off, when leaders understand their markets, their customers, and their industries. “Being kind makes a difference,” Cameron has affirmed that virtuous leadership is also responsible leadership. Indeed, a recent Gallup report about employee engagement confirmed that commitment and engagement were clearly tied to nine critical factors of organization success. Actively engaged employees are not only cognitively involved in the organization but have a deep personal commitment to its success—because they believe that they are valued, treated fairly, and that their organization cares about them as individuals.

Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, noted in his book, Creativity, Inc., that it is the manager’s job in an organization with fearful employees to figure out why employees feel uncomfortable, understand their concerns, and then to try to productively address the causes of employee concerns.[16] Catmull also notes that making too many rules to reign in the 5 percent of employees who are causing problems, is demeaning to the 95 percent who are not.[17] He encourages strengthening your organization by giving your employees the opportunity to feel personally invested in the company and to take ownership for helping to solve problems.[18]

David Hamilton has noted that kindness has five important side effects, in addition to the benefits of kind acts to others and their impacts on organizations:[19]

  • Kindness makes us happier. Science confirms that being kind triggers dopamine in the brain and creates a natural high. In addition, being kind confirms one’s individual identity. “This is who I am.”
  • Kindness gives us healthier hearts. The emotional warmth typically associated with acts of kindness triggers oxytocin in the brain which causes the release of chemicals which expand blood vessels.
  • Kindness slows aging. Kind actions and the release of oxytocin reduce levels of free radicals and reduce inflammation in the cardiovascular system which slows aging at its source
  • Kindness improves relationships. Genetically we are wired to bond by reducing the emotional distance inherent in acts of kindness.
  • Kindness is contagious. Empirical evidence demonstrates that acts of kindness create a domino effect which benefits others observing kind actions.

As we treat others kindly, we not only honor them and their inherent value, but also honor ourselves and affirm our humanity.[20]


As we examine our own inner feelings about how each of us wants to be treated, we can each appreciate the importance we place on being treated kindly and with a commitment to our own welfare, our best interests, and our personal growth. As leaders and organizations align their policies, practices, and programs to value their employees as “You/s” rather than as “It/s,” the growing body of evidence affirms that they will see those same employees respond with greater engagement, higher commitment, and better performance.[21] Kindness matters because it encourages people to do the right thing, and doing the right thing is typically both productive and profitable.[22]


[1] This point is made by a multitude of management scholars, including Jeffrey Pfeffer, Lynn Sharp Paine, Max DePree, Stephen R. Covey, and many others.

[2] See DePree, M. (2004). Leadership is an Art. New York: Crown Publishing. The covenantal nature of leadership to help and serve others is well described in Chapter One.

[3] See Caldwell, C., and Dixon, R. D. (2010). “Love, Forgiveness, and Trust: Critical Values of the Modern Leader.” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 93, Iss. 1, pp. 91-101 for a more thorough explanation of the importance of these virtues as leadership qualities.

[4] This foundation for trust and the importance of benevolent intention is well explained in Gullett, J., Canuto-Carranco, M., Brister, M., Turner, S., and Caldwell, C. (2009). “The Buyer-Supplier Relationship: An Integrative Model of Ethics and Trust.” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 90, Supp. 3, pp. 329-341. The translation of that intention into action is explained in Caldwell, C., Floyd, L. A., Taylor, J and Woodard, B. (2014). “Beneficence as a Source of Competitive Advantage.” Journal of Management Development, Vol. 33, Iss. 10, pp. 1057-1069.

[5] Beer. M., (2009). High Commitment High Performance: How to Build a Resilient Organization for Sustained Advantage. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[6]  Cameron, K. S. (2003). “Ethics, Virtuousness, and Constant Change.” In N. M. Tichy & A. R. McGill (Eds.), The Ethical Challenge: How to Lead with Unyielding Integrity (pp. 185–194). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[7] Covey, S. R., (2005). The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 98.

[8] Employees often have distaste for the Human Resource Department and for a management philosophy that they are commodities or costs to be minimized. Susan Heathfield has identified why Human Resource Management staff are often disliked in her article, Heathfield S., (2016). “Reasons Why Employees Hate HR: What HR Managers Can Learn from Employee Gripes” found online on November 13, 2016 at https://www.thebalance.com/reasons-why-employees-hate-hr-1917590.

[9] See Pfeffer, J., (1998). The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press for Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer’s explanation of why treating people well is the wisest management approach to achieving profits and sustaining competitive advantage.

[10] Baker, W. F.. & O’Malley, M., (2008). Leading with Kindness: How Good People Consistently Get Superior Results. New York: AMACOM.

[11] Quinn and Spreitzer address the obligation of leaders to empower others and to honor the duties that they owe individuals in Quinn, R. E., & Spreitzer, G. M., (1997). “The Road to Empowerment: Seven Questions Every Leader Should Consider.” BI, Vol. 26, pp. 37-49.

[12] Caldwell, C., Taylor, J., Woodard, B., (2014), op. cit.

[13] This point is the major theme of Pfeffer, J., (1998), op. cit. See also the National Book Award, Burns, J. M., (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper Row.

[14] Like many relationship-based virtues, kindness is a complex construct combining cognitive, affective, conative, and behavioral components – ultimately manifest as behaviors. See Fishbein, M. & Ajzen, I., (2009). Predicting and Changing Behavior: The Reasoned Action Approach. New York: Psychology Press.

[15] Duckworth, A., (2016). GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[16] Catmull, E. (2014). Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. New York: Random House.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Hamilton, D. R., (2011). 5 Beneficial Side Effects of Kindness. Huffington Post (August 12, 2011) found online on November 14, 2016 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-r-hamilton-phd/kindness-benefits_b_869537.html.

[20] Fromm, E., (2006). The Art of Loving. New York: Harper Perennial.

[21] Beer, M., (2009) op. cit.

[22] Baker, W. F., and O’Malley, M. (2008) op. cit.

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Author of the article
Cam Caldwell, PhD
Cam Caldwell, PhD
Cam Caldwell, obtained his PhD degree from Washington State University in 2004 where he was a Thomas S. Foley graduate fellow. He has co-authored over 100 publications about leadership, trust, and ethics and his book about moral leadership was published in 2012 by Business Expert Press.
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