In his 2019 manifesto on empathy, The War for Kindness, Stanford professor Jamil Zaki claims empathy is a muscle that can be strengthened over time. He argues against the notion of empathy as a personality trait—an outdated mode of thinking, he said, that labels some people as empathetic and others as not. According to Zaki, empathy is not a reflex; it’s a choice. And it can be learned.
The book so inspired Francesca Donlan that she proposed to teach a class at Florida Gulf Coast University last spring called “The Kindness Effect.” Donlan calls her class “a personal trainer for the kindness muscle.” She assigned the 35 students enrolled in her class a series of empathy-boosting exercises. In one, each student received $10 with the instruction to use it to be kind. One student used the money, plus some of her own funds, to buy a new pair of shoes for a homeless man she met on the street. Another purchased a pizza and a dessert and asked an elderly neighbor if she’d like to share dinner. A third bought ice cream for a woman and her son in line behind her at an ice cream shop. Afterward, the woman stopped by the student’s table, beaming, to thank her. “It showed these students, who are not rich or famous, that they have the power to change a person’s day,” Donlan says.
In recent years, experts have pointed to what they call a “kindness deficit” in the world. If the planet, in general, is experiencing a deficit of goodwill, then the workplace is having a crisis. Doni Landefeld, a leadership transformation coach at Metamorphosis Coaching in Fort Myers, often works with her corporate clients to improve their empathy levels.
“In business, it’s critical to have a basic establishment of respect and decency between human beings,” she says. “If we’re not kind, empathetic and civil, then we’re never going to establish trust. And trust is the building block of healthy relationships.”
While some might reach for the Golden Rule— the old “do unto others” standard—Landefeld suggests going beyond. She tries to implement what she calls the Platinum Rule: Treat others as they wish to be treated. “It takes a little bit more time and energy to discover the interests and motivations of other people, but it’s important to find out the things that light them up. If we can drill down to that level, it’s one of the very basics of being kinder and empathetic and working toward trust-building.”
Still, it’s worth asking: Does it really matter? The corporate version of success has long been painted with brushstrokes of personal gain at the cost of friendly relationships (see: Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko). Do businesses need employees with well-honed kindness muscles?
Patra Linderkamp, vice president of human resources at Doctor’s Choice Home Care—the largest home health care agency in the state— says yes. “The reality of it is, kindness is extremely important. In a work environment, it shows employees that they have value. It promotes teamwork. It increases productivity. I want to ensure that we demonstrate kindness, even when sometimes they don’t always see HR as kind.”
When she has to terminate an employee, Linderkamp’s policy is to treat the employee with respect and compassion. “No matter the situation, when an employee is exiting our environment, they should have the ability to walk out with their head held [high] in dignity. It’s important to ask, how were they treated in that process? Were they extended kindness and grace?”
What ultimately determines the level of kindness in a workplace, Linderkamp said, is a company’s culture. “Kindness has to be encouraged and discussed. It has to be demonstrated at the top and expected.” When kindness holds value at the office, employees will choose to be kind.