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Kind words

Written by: Penny Ransley
Published on: 1 Nov 2018

A few weeks ago my colleague Kate Pearlman Shaw wrote for The MJ on the importance of emotion and the need for leaders to regulate their emotions and manage their behaviours. She told us that our brains scan every five seconds for threat but they also scan for, what neuroscientists call, ‘reward’ which is a state where our brains are stress free, happy and satisfied, and this in turn leads to better performance in the workplace.

Working closely with chief officers and their leadership teams across all tiers of local government offers a privileged insight into the highs and lows of what it means to be a local government officer in 2018. It also gives access to the personal styles, emotions and decision making that follow people through their careers.

While I see daily reminders of the passion and determination that continues to thrive, there is no doubt the sector is felt to be a tougher, demanding and grittier environment to work in than ever before. The year-on-year requirement to do more with less and maintain budgets in the context of demand marching onwards and upwards is enough of a challenge. And that’s without the assumption that creativity, innovation and exemplary customer services will flow with abandon throughout the organisation, matching the very best of the private sector. The pressure is felt by everyone we speak to including mayors, leaders, chief executives, directors and their teams and we know that pressure can galvanise some but have negative effects on the behaviour of others.

There are libraries of tomes on effective appointments l Recruitment & retention l Kind words leadership and leading under pressure – quite rightly as it’s a complicated business – but a new theme has been emerging in my recent interviews with chief executives and directors around the need for respect and kindness in the workplace.

Having interviewed local government professionals for 12 years, this feels like a shift away from hard edged performance management to a genuine acknowledgement of the hard work and commitment of officers at every level in the organisation. We all acknowledge the virtue of kindness in our personal lives but I’ve really enjoyed this new focus on the value of kindness emerging among the drier leadership narrative we’re all comfortable with in local government. I’ve seen an emerging theme that being a kind leader is essential to success and perhaps one of the most important leadership qualities when it comes to building loyalty and motivation.

Hour long interviews are not the right time to start to explore kindness in any depth but a quick web exploration to research ‘kindness in leadership’ has been fascinating. There is a huge variety of TED Talks, articles, books and inspirational quotes including the regularly cited: ‘Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change’ (Bob Kerrey). Quite simply, they all point to the basic principle that a kinder world is a more productive world where individuals and organisations can thrive. There is also a plethora of mindfulness and meditation apps available, which I have to admit, I’ve started listening to, particularly as many are five or ten minute sessions.

Compassionate leadership seems to be the ‘new kid on the block’ leadership theory encapsulating this thinking which comes from a growing global recognition mindfulness and gratitude are key requirements for stress reduction and a sense of well being.

Kindness – which includes positive recognition from valuing someone, giving them time and empathising with them as well as recognising their achievements – has a significant impact on human connectiveness, aka engagement. Putting this into context, having space and time to reflect and have some sort of peace in the workplace, is most definitely a theme coming through when speaking to local government leaders.

But what happens when organisations fail to be kind? When kindness is usurped by a more cut and thrust culture and its by-products of impatience, intolerance and a focus upon self? Like silent assassins, these behaviours can creep through an organisation suffocating its best qualities. As recruiters, we see the implications sooner than most. High turnover, low morale and complacency are common symptoms. The difficulty for leadership is spotting the cause quickly enough and taking effective action.

So how do you incorporate Kindness into performance? It’s worth revisiting your leadership competency behaviour framework to make sure it contains some measurement of the ability to listen, properly hear and understand and empathise. If it does, question how well you hold up the mirror to both good and bad behaviours; celebrating the former and tackling the latter. If it doesn’t then ask your leadership team why not? The good news is that the mindset and behaviours needed to create a kinder environment can be developed and instilled through coaching, leadership development and of course practice.

In a sector where talent pools are drying up – social workers frequently enticed from one borough to another and property professionals snapped up with ease by the private sector – councils should deploy one of the original cornerstones their services have been built upon.

Perhaps the power of kindness is the ultimate recruitment and retention tool in the increasingly tough world of local government.

Penny Ransley is a partner in the local government practice at GatenbySanderson