ATD Blog

Kindness and Survival of the Fittest

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Darwin’s survival of the fittest concept has often provided the foundation of the argument that in order to be successful, leaders must climb the proverbial ladder while exuding uncompromising strength and resolve along the way. Weakness in the form of tenderness, sensitivity, or tears would have no place in a dog-eat-dog environment. Right? Well, not exactly. While there is a time for so-called strong leadership, it turns out that a major component of that strength is tied to kindness and a concern for others—not a cold, sterile resolve.

To be fair, Darwin was actually misunderstood. Yes, the survival of the fittest is what he is remembered for. But it was his focus on the social fabric that is often forgotten. Darwin wrote that there are social instincts that cause one to enjoy being around others, to care for them, and to feel sympathy. His assessment was that these motives appeared to be the result of strong social/maternal instincts and that these occurred so naturally, that they were performed without any calculated forethought. They simply occur because of our desire to care for others. Further, he felt these instincts were stronger than any others.

Enter kindness.

The impact of unkind work environments plays out in multiple ways. Employees may show physical signs of heart disease, fatigue, depressed immune systems, or elevated glucocorticoids which lead to obesity. The organizational price of toxicity is significant as well. Employees are unable to maintain focus. They may lose their passion for the mission of the organization, or go as far as to sabotage organizational processes either overtly or covertly.


But what about those rough and tumble “survival of the fittest” leaders who are unapologetic for their “in your face” style? The screamers, the throwers, those who threaten reassignment of job loss sometimes knowing full well they don’t mean it, but nonetheless use it as a “motivational” tool. In 22 years of active duty, this is something I saw first-hand—the big scary captain, the gruff and testy admiral. Author Daniel Goleman calls this the SOB Paradox. Sure, these folks exist, and some are successful. But as Christine Porath in her New York Times exploration of civility in the workplace notes, this is generally temporary. Oftentimes employees will ultimately retaliate by withholding information, resources, or failing to step up in critical situations.

Instilling kindness in the organization takes tremendous courage. Focusing on compassion will oftentimes be met with ridicule or the feared air-quote of the phrase ‘soft skills.’ This is because a commitment to kindness begins with a deep dive into one’s self. Leaders should ask themselves how often they exhibit non-verbal cues that reek of unkindness, signals such as checking mail while someone is speaking, failing to respond to emails, taking others for granted, or not saying thank you. Verbal transgressions may come in the form of ridicule, use of jargon, or a belittling tone. All of these send strong messages of disinterest and lack of appreciation.


Leaders should build communities of kindness in their organizations by being an example for what kindness looks like. Taking the time to smile at others, wish them a good day, express interest in them, or empathy when warranted goes a long way toward a culture of compassion. And kindness begets kindness. Studies show that the neurological response to gratitude drives feelings of gratitude and goodwill. Research from the Journal of Happiness Studies concluded that study participants felt happier when they recalled buying something for someone else—even happier than when they remembered buying something for themselves. And people who witness acts of kindness are more likely to perform acts themselves. So why not start now?

Our organizations are suffering from metric-overload. Dashboards with red, yellow, and green lights, mounds of reports and tracking systems, and quantitative analysis that seems to know no end may tell us about the status of projects but tell us little about the health of the heart and soul of the organization. We are obligated to take a step back and revisit the simple acts of kindness that fuel trust and openness in our workplace. Now more than ever, it’s time for a kinder world.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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