Kindness is an Attitude…?
Over many years of working in social housing as a trainer and facilitator I come across a lot of kind people. Now, it’s easy to use that word, but what does it mean in the day-to-day practice of delivering service to tenants?
Kindness is an attitude, but it also runs deeper. It is also a motive. We can act kindly out of a motive that isn’t kind. We can appear kind because we want something from someone, but we can also be kind because that is what deeply motivates us as a person; it is part of who we essentially are. Kindness then requires nothing in return.
Kind people will exhibit kindness naturally, and on many occasions. But you can also not be a particularly kind person, yet still open a door for an elderly person to make it easier for them to enter your office reception.
Does it Matter?
In the hotel sector, acts of kindness are part of customer service, linked very much to performance. If customers perceive themselves to have been well-treated, they are more likely to return and also to recommend the hotel. So, even if you are not motivated by kindness, you open that door for the elderly person because you have to; there are formal consequences if you don’t.
Creating a culture where acts of kindness are consistently practised by all staff can be expensive. We have to implement the formal system that disciplines where kindness is lacking (and complaints are received). We have to train and regularly update that training. We have to collect and analyse tenant feedback.
The Clumsiness of Kindness
Many organisations celebrate individual kindness with an “employee of the month award” and the reward employee’s face is there, smiling for all to see on a poster at reception, clutching their certificate.
These are clumsy, and often costly ways, to create a culture of kindness.
Kindness is more effective, and less costly, if it is expressed more naturally. People can be very effective in job roles and not be particularly “kind” in their outwardly expressed personality. It is often improvised, spontaneous and unpredictable, unique to each individual. For social housing organisations wishing to delight their tenants with their levels of customer care, those who, by personality, find it hard to go that extra mile with tenants, and who simply can’t identify those little moments where simple acts of kindness can really effect a positive reaction in a tenant, should not be on the customer “front line”. These staff are better behind the scenes. You can’t force kindness out of people without it taking its toll on those people in terms of creating weariness in them, and often that kindness will come out in false, insincere ways.
Kindness can be woken up in some people who have “lost it” as they’ve become tired, stressed, or simply bored of the job. They can get into “just another tenant” syndrome, where they no longer can feel empathy with each tenant as an individual, a human, with needs. That’s when a very gritty and real customer care workshop might help, based on real stories and live examples, experience sharing and confronting the reality that “I’ve lost it”.
Kindness can also be awoken in some people with practice. Putting one member of staff alongside a “kind” colleague can allow that colleague to demonstrate by example, and often the positive reaction, the lit up face with a warm thank you from a tenant, can be energising, motivating and empowering.
Employees also need space to be kind. If we put them under so much pressure in our quest to be efficient and “lean” that there’s no time for kindness; if we don’t recognise, celebrate and even authentically reward it, then it doesn’t easily embed as an organisational value.
The small, what I like to call “micro”, acts of kindness build up over time. They are often more important than any glossy leaflets and classy websites and swish reception areas. They can include:
- simply acknowledging the needs of a tenants and showing them you care; demonstrating empathy
- small acts of courtesy, such as opening a door for an elderly person
- checking that people are “Okay”
- anticipating a need before it is expressed
- giving warm attention, where tenants feel genuinely listened to
- a decent tea and coffee machine, and a water cooler
- walking with someone to the door, to their car, or seeing them indoors
- asking “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
- getting back to people by phone or email quickly and demonstrating you understand their “urgency” around a need.
- being silent, and honouring someone’s need for a bit of “space” or “silence” (this can include just listening without trying to “fix it” immediately)
Often tenants experience “unkindness” when they feel not listened to, when a promise (often to “get back to them”) has been broken, when they feel hurried or that their needs have been misunderstood. They experience when they are treated in cold, officious ways, by an unfriendly maintenance worker in their house, when they feel they are “just a number”, and when they feel they are being treated minimally. All of these things cost little or nothing to put right. In my work as a facilitator, we confront all of these “unkindnesses” head on in the training room. Often it is just a matter of naming them and then waking up kindness in each person that, for different reasons, is lying dormant or even suppressed.
Kindness is really about tuning into the need of another, and putting that need at the centre of your own concern. Kindness doesn’t mean surrendering to all needs, but it does mean sincerely doing the little things, doing what you can to “lift” the other person. Kindness is about sympathising, and also about “giving” a gesture of help or support to another person.
The Cost of Kindness
It often costs nothing. Usually the benefit gained in terms of a more satisfied tenants outweighs the cost of ten seconds it might take. Often it involves reaching out to the tenant and showing you understand, that you want to meet their needs, even if you can’t always do that.
Kindness is not always easily received, especially if it has been lacking in the past! It can be a bit of a shock. Over time, people readily get used to kindness and, yes, it can then become normalised, and people get used to it. Yet kindness tends to be energising, and even where we start to take it for granted, we tend to value it anew. It has a “refreshing” quality. We can get used to someone holding a door open for us as it becomes the norm. Yet, when we are asked to describe the “service” of an organisation to others, we tend to report kindness as a “unique selling point”. There’s a lot of indifference and unkindness in our world, and kindness currently still has a new feel to it a lot of the time. Over time, exploring how we can show kindness in different and new ways becomes part of our service innovation. Kindness can then drive performance improvement.
Every social housing organisation has its exemplars of kindness. An unkind senior management team will not lead by example, and a largely unkind culture may result. Two of the front lines for kindness to show itself are on the phone and in the reception. The third is on the doorstep. Increasingly, it is also at the email and social media front lines too.
Some Watchwords: listening, anticipating, acknowledging, empathising, lifting, responding
A culture of kindness can be engendered if we put it up front as an organisational value. I often don’t see it explicitly stated. It’s often hidden behind “responsiveness” or “excellence”. Yet kindness is as old as the hills. We neglect it at our peril. PL