Kindness and connection – why does it matter in the workplace?

Love (or kindness) and connection are two universal human needs. These, along with other values like trust, respect, safety and acceptance, help us to thrive, to feel fulfilled. But where do they fit in a workplace environment?  Do leaders and managers do enough to foster and encourage kindness and meaningful connection at work?

Being kind is an innate ability we all share and to be genuinely kind comes from the heart (not from the head) – it requires us to let our defences down, to show our tender side. It means taking a risk to be vulnerable in a world where performance, productivity and competition are more highly valued.

Is there room for vulnerability in the workplace?

When you share a personal experience or a story about yourself you make yourself vulnerable – as personal stories often reveal a flaw, a mistake or an obstacle that was difficult to overcome. Many professionals are nervous about sharing the personal, to reveal their struggles at their place of work for fear it will open them up to judgment or criticism – however, people are drawn to the transformative power of vulnerability and sharing stories like these help colleagues to connect.[1]

‘We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives”. Brene Brown

Holding up our armour, guarding ourselves against others, and showing how tough, competent and independent we are, can lead to a sense of alienation, isolation and loneliness.

 An alternative way: ‘survival of the kindest’

We are all familiar with the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ but you are probably less familiar (or have never heard of) ‘survival of the kindest’ – a term originally coined by Dacher Keltner, PhD[2], and now used increasingly by other leading social scientists.

To understand how this term came about, we need to look at the three emotional regulation systems or survival instincts that drive human behaviour.

The first is the avoidance system driven by the brains’ negativity bias that helped the human species to survive. Today it is often best served by being cautious – by avoiding life’s ‘sticks’.

The second is the achievement system. Our drive to seek out new opportunities and resources or life’s ‘carrots’.

The third facet to our survival instinct that also governs how we approach the world is known as the soothing and contentment system. When we no longer feel the need to constantly defend ourselves against danger, and when resources are abundant, so that we are not just struggling to survive, we feel a pleasant and deep sense of contentment. It’s a sign that we are happy with the way things are and that we are in tune with our environment.

When we feel safe, we are confident enough to look outwards beyond the immediate needs of survival and are able to live a more connected and harmonious way with those around us and that in turn allows us to be kinder to ourselves and to others.

This bolsters the social bonds that encourage us to cooperate, rather than compete with each other. And such cooperation was critical for our ancestors because those who were kind and worked cooperatively with each other survived better than those who struggled in conflict and isolation. Hence the phrase ‘survival of the kindest’.

It takes only one person to start changing their behaviour and the ripple effect kicks in. A change in thinking impacts behaviour and behaviour creates influence and inspiration to others to change their behaviour in turn. And as group thinking and behaviour change, the organisation changes, improves and grows.

Tips to practice kindness and connection with self and others:

  • Carry out random acts of kindness at work, for example:
  • Slow down when you come into the office and say good morning or hello to colleagues more often and smile when you do
  • Smile at a colleague (or as many as you like) every day for one week and notice what happens, how you feel
  • When you make yourself a cup of tea ask others whether they’d like a cuppa too
  • Pay a different colleague a compliment every day for one week and notice the effect it has on you
  • When asking colleagues ‘How are you?’, stop and listen, be interested in how they really are (it only needs to take five minutes)
  • Help a colleague in need, notice someone under stress or under the weather aiming to meet a deadline, prepare for an event or perhaps struggling with staff absence?
  • Make time to write a personal thank you note/email/gesture to a colleague(s)
  • Make time for colleagues: every week, go out for lunch and talk about other things than work with your colleagues
  • Show appreciation for your colleagues: It’s easy to moan, but how about a new tack, at the end of a meeting highlight some positives about all the participants in the room. For example: “I appreciate how you really listen to others.” Or “I appreciate how you ask helpful questions rather than telling us what to do.” Or “I appreciate that you follow up on your action points and do what you said you were going to do.”
  • Wish someone well: Throughout the day wish someone at work well. It can be the same person or different colleagues. You bump into someone making coffee or on your way in, seize that moment, and for just a few seconds wish them well – wish them a good day or afternoon. Notice the effect and how you feel.

And the beauty of acts of kindness is that they benefit the giver and the receiver. Give it a go. You’ll not only boost your wellbeing but also gain a deeper sense of purpose in the workplace.


[2] Dacher and Keltner

Karen Liebenguth

Karen is a life and personal development coach, team building facilitator and mindfulness trainer. She set up Green Space Coaching & Mindfulness in 2009, offering coaching while walking in London’s parks and green space tapping into the benefits nature has on our wellbeing.