The signature of Tom Peter’s iconic first book, “In Search of Excellence” was the following 6 words: “Hard is soft. Soft is hard”. He was talking about how “hard” financial numbers can be easily manipulated and “hard” business plans can be nothing more than fabricated flights of fancy. The true hard stuff, he maintains, is something business often undervalues as soft: people skills and the quality of relationships inside and outside of the business. And the softest word of all- and perhaps the word with the greatest and most lasting impact- is kindness.
True kindness is so powerful it can make us weep. In fairness, I should also point out that cruelty is also powerful and can make us weep as well. But the tears following acts of kindness are an expression of gratitude awhile the tears following acts of cruelty are an expression of pain. Both will be repaid in full although we aren’t always there for the moment of repayment. When I was 18, I had a summer job at a local soda factory in New Haven, Connecticut. The temperature inside the bottling plant was routinely over 100 degrees and on one memorably hot day I was sitting with the old-timers enjoying a bottle of orange soda with my lunch when the factory owner came walking by. He gruffly criticized me for drinking a quart bottle of soda and told me that I should stick to the 12 ounce bottles. Honestly, I was surprised that he noticed me at all- and that he cared about this infraction-but I didn’t react strongly to the incident. I didn’t bother to tell him that I didn’t like the flavor we were bottling on the 12 oz line. But the old-timers were already grumbling about the owner’s behavior. When I got back to my post feeding bottles into the sterilizer the guy I was working with stopped me and said: “We’re not putting up with that” as he skillfully broke two bottles in exactly the right place to jam the conveyor belt and shut down the production line.
I’m certainly not advocating for sabotage and revenge but I did learn a lesson that day and was struck by the fact that the owner never saw the final chapter in the chain of events he set in motion. The point I do want to make is that you can accomplish any business goal and still be kind. You can fire someone compassionately. You can put someone on a performance improvement plan with kindness. It costs you nothing to be kind and you engender loyalty and gratitude in the process. And you mitigate, rather than escalate, stress in the workplace with kindness. But soft is hard and we often fall short of being the person we wish to be. The important thing to recognize is that kindness is a powerful skill worth pursuing and practicing.
So here is my challenge: I say that there is no business scenario that can’t be handled with kindness. Show me that I’m wrong and I’ll buy you lunch.