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Kindness: The Unsung Hero of Agility


Imagine that you’ve been working for several days on a particularly sticky problem. You would have consulted your coworkers, but you are the expert, so you decided it would be best to grapple alone. Now, you realize that people will start wondering about your lack of progress, so it’s time to share your struggle.


First, you tell your teammates. They ask, “Why did you wait so long to tell us?” They even make comments like, “Darn! This is really going to set us back.” Then you tell your boss, and she says, “This is not good!”


How do you feel right now? Motivated? Enthusiastic? Creative? These are not the words that likely come to mind. Yet, these are the words we use to describe a model employee. What went wrong here? The answer is, quite simply, a lack of kindness.


Kindness starts with empathy. Contrary to popular belief, empathy, while something you may have been born with, can also be learned. Like any skill, you learn the basics and practice until you improve. You focus on your growth as long as it takes to become second nature.


Once you develop empathy, kindness comes easily. It’s hard to feel someone’s pain and not react with kindness first. In our scenario, if kind people surrounded you, their reactions might have looked more like, “I’m so sorry that you’re struggling. Is there anything I can do to help?”


How would you feel about that response? Comforted? Relieved? Supported? Undoubtedly, you already feel bad that you’ve taken more time than expected. You may have even mentally beaten yourself up about it more than once. When others have your back, you can move forward from those feelings more positively.


Agility works when everyone feels empowered and capable. Leaders can talk about autonomy and empowerment in meetings, but the reactions to daily events can reinforce or undermine those messages. Organizations implementing Agile practices without addressing a general lack of kindness will hit a brick wall. Command-and-control organizations often rely on fear and intimidation to manage progress. These anti-patterns limit the benefits of Agility.


ITHAKA, my former employer, actively hired for kindness. After joining, I felt like I had slipped through the cracks. I didn’t have the level of empathy I experienced from my coworkers. This was a catalyst for me to work on myself. I studied empathy and practiced. I got better at it, and my kindness level went up. And not just at work. I am grateful for the gift I was given.


You may be unable to change your organization’s culture, but you can start with yourself. If you are kind, it sets an example for those around you. Also, if you see unkind behavior, call it out! You can do so in a “kind” manner -- in private. “Hey Jen, you were pretty hard on Timothy this morning. He was hurting already, and you really laid into him.” Jen may not be into self-reflection, so you might get an earful. If you do, live knowing you were doing your best to support organizational Agility. Nobody said it was going to be easy.


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