We expect kindness in schools, why not in offices?

Principal Lesley Franklin argues business could learn a lot from education.

by Lesley Franklin
Last Updated: 11 Jun 2019

Working with school children, I am often struck by the fact that we sometimes expect more of young people than we do of adults. The practice of exhibiting kindness is one such example – a trait encouraged and nurtured in every pupil from an early age. At our school, we go so far as to build kindness into the curriculum, routinely emphasising its practice throughout the school year.

Why then does this value disappear in many individuals when they reach adulthood? Workplace incivility, what Acas terms ‘minor but persistent negative behaviour, such as rudeness, disrespect and lack of consideration for others’ is a widespread problem in the workplace, with 1/3 of the workforce having been bullied at work, according to solicitors Slater and Gordon. 

Workplace rudeness takes its toll on employees and businesses alike: whilst the mental health ramifications of this behaviour can be severe for employees, companies also suffer from a reduced output and far lower degree of commitment to the company. Given that staff retention and productivity are key challenges to employers, they really can’t afford to have an incivility epidemic take hold.

The reason we emphasise being kind in school is not just because it’s the right thing to do. A culture of kindness makes for happier, more energetic and more collaborative people – all key factors to a well-performing school and business. 

I believe that businesses can learn a lot from schools’ emphasis on being kind. Here’s how to introduce a culture of kindness at work.

Start them young

Staff induction processes should include a focus on kindness as well as the usual explanations about operational matters. When starting out, people are understandably keen to prove themselves. This is to be encouraged and employees can prove themselves by demonstrating collaborative and encouraging behaviour. By all means, single out individual successes but those successes should be allied to desirable behaviour and methods of working.

Don’t confuse kindness with ‘doing nice things’

We have seen an increasing trend towards ‘corporate perks’ and ‘wellbeing initiatives’ in the workplace, and are told that these are key to attracting and retaining top talent. Such initiatives can be excellent but I would argue that a culture of kindness and care must be at the heart an organisation to make it successful. Kindness is infectious – be kind and others will be kind in return.

Kindness isn’t just doing things that are perceived as nice – rather, it’s a continuous practice that is aligned to true intentions. Everyone must consider how they come across in every interaction and every form of communication. Kindness means respect and means that everyone can concentrate on their work without unnecessary concerns intervening. The sticking plaster of a free lunch or exercise class will not heal a nasty wound caused by incivility.

Lead with kindness

Leaders must embody the value of kindness if they wish to see it spread throughout their organisation. If, as a leader, you are curt with an employee who has not met your standards or react dismissively towards an idea you do not agree with, then you risk setting a bad example to be replicated by employees at every level. As Doug Conant states in his leadership book, ‘Touch Points’, "Leadership is all about people. The way we treat others will determine our success or failure".

Assess the management style of the leaders in your organisation – if their approach is fear-based and sparks anxiety or intimidation rather than confidence and positivity, take steps to correct this as soon as possible.

Being kind does not mean that hard decisions cannot be made; in fact, the opposite is true. In a culture of kindness people will respect decisions more readily and have confidence that decisions have been made for good reason. You can still be kind to people and have high standards – the two go hand-in-hand.

Check your intentions and encourage others to do the same


Everyone is the protagonist in their own story – it is doubtful that very many people perceive themselves as unkind. To check your intentions, a bit of self-reflection is needed. Ask yourself:

-       How will my behaviour make the other person feel?

-       Would I be happy to be treated this way?

-       Would I be happy for a family member to be treated this way?

-       Could my actions cause someone to doubt themselves, or feel intimidated?

-       When a mistake occurs, are my colleagues or employees comfortable enough to share this with me?

Questions like this can be helpful in encouraging kind behaviour and should be reflected upon by employees throughout your organisation.
Creating a culture of kindness does take time, but through persistence and effort, yours can be a far more pleasant and productive workplace.

Lesley Franklin is principal of George Heriot’s School


Image credit: Classroom chair and desk/Pixabay

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