Research explains the big difference between kind and nice

If the past 18 months have taught us anything, it’s the immense power of kindness. In the corporate arena, kind leadership has become more than just a “style.” Instead, it is an essential ingredient to creating an environment that nurtures innovation. Signature Consultants, in partnership with national research and data firm Dynata, recently conducted a study of kind leadership. From this we created a Humankindex to underscore just how important kindness is to spurring innovation throughout an organization.

Kind vs. nice leadership and the correlation to innovation

While the meanings may seem to some to be interchangeable, there are key differences between being kind and being nice. Kind leadership is defined by our research as creating a culture of taking concrete action to help others, addressing a person’s need, regardless of tone, and giving permission for real success and failure. Niceness, by contrast, typically centers on pleasing others and being polite so as not to offend.

In this context, flagging a struggling employee and telling them they are not meeting expectations in their role may be seen as not very nice. Yet it is considered kind in the sense that it helps them improve. This distinction makes it clearer to understand how leading with kindness can foster greater innovation and a stronger competitive advantage.

The Humankindex is based on two key components:

  • Kindness Quotient: The degree to which a company practices a culture of kindness leadership, as well as the extent to which individuals feel and recognize it.
  • Innovation Capability: How well the organization’s culture and leadership support and promote an innovative work environment, as well as the extent to which this is perceived by employees.

In the first annual release of the research, the data shows a direct causal relationship between the height of a company’s kindness quotient score and the degree to which it is able to foster an environment of innovation. In fact, an organization is five times more likely to be considered innovative if it is also considered kind. The Humankindex for all companies is 58 (based on a total index value of 100 points), comprised of a 31.5 kindness quotient and 26.5 innovation capability.

In our study, workers were asked to identify the leadership style that best leads to a more innovative work environment. Respondents ranked “leads with kindness” first among other leadership styles, including leading with authority, empathy, courageousness, and risk-taking.

Further, respondents who said their current company’s leadership style was one that “puts kindness before anything else” were most likely to agree that this leadership style has led to more of a competitive advantage in the marketplace. And when kindness is considered a core value of the organization, employees are 3.5 times more likely to share a sense of purpose between their job and the company’s larger goals.

Particularly amid the pandemic era, kindness at work and in the larger society is driving significant impacts on individuals’ overall mental health. But have company leaders embraced a move toward more kind leadership as a result?

According to our study findings, nearly one-third (30%) of workers say their company’s leadership has embraced kindness as a value less so since the COVID-19 pandemic began. More concerning is that 76% of workers say their company’s leadership has embraced the value of “profits before people” at levels that are the same or more since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

However, organizations who put kindness ahead of profits have employees who are 120% more likely to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their current job, and 89% more likely to have a strong desire to think of new and innovative ideas.

The value in meaningful work

Another key trend that has emerged over the pandemic era is the rising quest for meaning in work, which supersedes pay increases for many workers, particularly those in the IT industry and those who are earlier in their careers.

Particularly for millennial workers, who along with Gen Z now comprise nearly half of the workforce (46%), meaning is an essential element in a daily work environment. Six out of 10 workers, especially in the millennial and Gen Z age groups, say they would rather have a management team that helped them find meaning in their work than receive a 5% pay increase. That sentiment increases among IT professionals, with 81% in agreement.

Kindness is the key ingredient

Now, perhaps more than ever, leaders will need to embrace or return to powerful core values such as kindness to drive a successful path forward. Our research has illustrated a strong business case for adopting kind leadership, not only because it is the right thing to do but because it leads to competitive advantage.

A desire for kindness exists right now. Will you offer it?

Mahfuz Ahmed is the CEO and principal founder of DISYS, a global managed services and staffing firm. He also serves as the CEO of Signature Consultants, which was acquired by DISYS in 2021.