By Ilaneet Goren, MSW RSW
Ilaneet is a social worker, adult educator and project manager specializing in equity, inclusion and human rights. She is the Director of Workplace Learning and Development at Harmony Movement. Content has been re-posted – with permission – from www.ilaneet.com
I’ve noticed that we’ve stopped using terms like kindness and compassion when making the case for diversity and inclusion in organizations. I suspect it’s because somewhere along the way we’ve internalized the notion that these terms are too fluffy and intangible, and therefore impractical to use in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work.
This notion is misguided of course: Research in neuroscience, anthropology and evolutionary biology offer compelling evidence for the role of kindness in promoting healthy and inclusive group dynamics, including in the workplace.
Kindness – the emotional energy behind equity and inclusion work
There has been a lot of focus on building the “business case for diversity”: Helping companies see a clear return on their investment in DEI and demonstrating how diversity helps increase their bottom line by helping teams make better decisions and by being more reflective of the demographic they serve.
As a consultant I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy putting together statistics to appeal to the logic of decision-makers, helping them see the value of DEI strategies and training. As an educator, however, I was feeling a kind of disconnect because I’ve known intuitively that in order to change people’s minds, we needed to appeal to their hearts. We need to go beyond the slides and bullet points.
Sure, facts and figures are important. But we know today that humans are much more emotional than rational when it comes to behaviour and decision-making, despite of what we like to think of ourselves.
This being so, why not make a kindness case for diversity?
We would then need to recognize – vitally, I think – that kindness and inclusion are inseparable and that empathy-based strategies are key when engaging people in change work. And not only in training but in meetings, conversations, and strategy planning.
This is part of the growing recognition of the need to be comfortable with our own and others’ emotional expression and to develop emotional literacy as part of diversity education. Shakil Choudhury, author of Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them and cofounder of Anima Leadership Institute, offers insights and strategies on the role of emotions in his recent article series, The Hole in Racial Justice: A Love Letter.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should ignore the role of systems and power in perpetuating oppression on the societal level – institutions must absolutely be held accountable through policies, legal challenges and advocacy. But, if we continue to ignore some of the key universal human motivators like the need to express and receive kindness, then our work may always be (and feel) incomplete.
The Evolutionary Advantage of Kindness
It’s interesting to consider the origin and root of the word kindness in order to see how it relates to inclusion. Tara Cousineau, author of The Kindness Cure, writes that the word kindness comes from the word kin meaning “of the same kind.” The notions of relatedness, interconnectedness and community are at the core of kindness, she notes.
From an evolutionary perspective, we are built to make decisions that benefit our species’ survival. The traits and behaviours associated with social reciprocity and kindness have an evolutionary advantage and are therefore passed down to our offspring. There is even an advantage to being a kind leader, which Dacher Keltner explores in his book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. Studies with chimpanzees, humans’ close primate relative, confirm the theory that groups will consistently give power to leaders who practice kindness and reciprocity because it benefits their society’s greater good, and therefore enhances their chances of survival.
Research shows we are wired for kindness and empathy, a comforting notion these days when bombarded with fear-mongering and polarization. So how do we tap into this energy of kindness to move equity and inclusion forward?
Consider these 3 ways to incorporate kindness into our DEI work:
1. Balance emotional and cognitive engagement
Have you ever downloaded facts and stats onto people expecting they will see the clear logic in your argument and change their behaviour accordingly? Were you left disappointed when that didn’t happen? Welcome to humanity.
More and more practitioners are discovering that logical paths and data are necessary yet insufficient when trying to engage people in change work. We are more likely to be effective if we create opportunities for people to connect emotionally, both with the ideas we are presenting, and with each other. The brain’s prefrontal cortex – the area at the front of our brain associated with conscious thinking, reflection and decision-making – is also linked to empathy, emotional regulation, and engagement with new ideas and perspectives, all of which are crucial to fostering inclusive behaviour. Activities that strengthen this area of our brain, such as stress-reduction through exercise, music and mindfulness (the awareness of our mind and body in the present moment), can actually help DEI strategies be more effective and sustainable.
Make space for emotions and notice the changes in emotional energy in the room to help inform your process. For example: If you notice the group is disengaged or uncomfortable, pause, acknowledge the shift, and use it to inform the conversation. “I can sense some resistance or discomfort with what I’m saying. It’s totally normal, let’s take a moment to share what’s on our minds.”
Start a drop-in peer-led mindfulness mediation group over a lunch break or another time that works for most people; encourage people to bring resources to share with the group and take turns leading.
Watch Shakil Choudhury’s TVO interview on the need for creating the space for emotions in social justice work education.
2. Help people exercise the kindness muscle
In her widely-read article in The Atlantic, Masters of Love, Emily Esfahani highlighted kindness and generosity as key elements to lasting relationships. Although her research focused on married couples, the findings can be applied to all relationships, including work related. Kindness, Esfahani writes, is a muscle that needs to be regularly exercised in order to be kept in shape. She cites such everyday examples as taking an active interest in each other’s worlds, being fully present in conversations, and choosing compassion over contempt in moments of conflict – all of which can be brought into the workplace.
What if we created more opportunities and raised the expectations for employees to flex their kindness muscle?
Start your next team meeting with a check-in or an ice-breaker question asking people to share one act of kindness they’ve received or observed at work. It can also be one thing they appreciate about their team or each other: Have people pull a random name and share an appreciation for that person. This primes our minds for kindness.
When assessing a decision, in addition to cost and other objective considerations ask, “What would be the kind thing to do here?”
Complete the kindness quotient quiz to learn more about the areas in your life where you can increase compassion and kindness.
3. Model kindness to inspire positive action in others
Based on the Three Degrees of Influence theory, also called reciprocal altruism, when we demonstrate kindness, the behaviour spreads to at least three people in our network . Cousineau explains: “If you demonstrate a kindness even when it is at a cost to you, that generous behavior spreads to your friend (one degree), your friend’s friend (two degrees), and your friend’s friend’s friend (three degrees) – reaching people you don’t even know.”
By practicing everyday kindness toward people you perceive as different from you based on one or more dimensions of diversity, you can create a ripple effect that will be felt throughout the organization. This is also a self-perpetuating cycle, as Keltner notes: when we practice kindness, cooperate, and express appreciation for what others say and do, our social influence rises so we’re even more likely to affect change.
Do something kind for a co-worker without any attachment to a specific reaction from them or expecting or receiving something back. Stay present in the moment (by taking a few deep, conscious breaths) and notice the feelings such giving evokes in you. Remember this feeling and come back to it often, using it as an anchor to ground yourself in kindness before going into challenging conversation and meetings.
Empathy, compassion and kindness comprise the energetic thread that binds people across identity-based differences, driving them to challenge discrimination even when it doesn’t affect them directly. It has an important place in every DEI practitioner’s toolkit.
Perhaps there is much more room for kindness in DEI work than we’ve let in.
We can certainly benefit from a balanced approach that integrates emotional literacy with evidence-based action, knowing that kindness has the science to back up its usefulness.
 Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowloer