Be Successful By Being Kind

I was once in a rock band while we were recording tracks for our new upcoming album. I felt that another member of the group, Megan, had delivered a poor recording on her track for one of the songs. It was important to me that I give clear and direct feedback to my bandmates, in order to make sure everybody was giving their best and that the end result would be amazing. So, during our next band meeting I told her, "Megan, this track sounds like you phoned it in. You need to redo it."

Megan took offense by my comment and responded by criticizing some of my work in that song. “It’s not like everything you’ve recorded has been stellar,” she said, and she wasn’t wrong. Instead of a productive creative conversation about the music, we were now arguing about whose work was better. The conversation had devolved. Our ability to function as a team had been impaired. Worse, Megan, my friend and fellow bandmate, was angry at me and no longer trusted me to give good feedback.

Our band was hitting a snag, and not because our comments were untruthful or dishonest. My feedback was accurate; she hadn't tried very hard on that track. She recorded very few takes and didn't practice much beforehand. The feedback was also fair; I had previously heard her say that she wasn't going to put too much effort into it. My words were true; they were brutally honest. But sharing my brutal honesty was making things worse, not better.

The missing factor, the thing I should have done to share my feedback with Megan while avoiding her self-defense instinct, was being kind. Using the expression "phoned it in" made it sound like Megan didn't care, which nobody thought was true. She cared a lot about our music. And by raising the issue in front of our other bandmates I caused Megan embarrassment that I could have avoided.

In fact, in this case Megan had an excellent reason for recording a sub-standard track: She wasn't sure she wanted to keep the track and so she didn't want to spend a lot of time making a perfect recording. This wasn't a quality problem, it was a communication error. In the end she decided to record it with a different instrument, so by making the initial recording quickly she saved valuable studio recording time. By not first requesting her thoughts on the track, I disrespected her autonomy and the boundaries of her responsibilities in our group. I was unkind.

Being kind is the ethical thing to do. It's the Golden Rule and the Categorical Imperative. It improves everyone's quality of life. That should be reason enough to be a kind person, but there are more reasons. It will also make you a more successful person in your creative endeavors. Being unkind will have a concrete negative effect on your ability to be a creative person. All creative people rely heavily on others to accomplish their creative goals. Being unkind breaks the bonds of trust and kinship that are necessary for successful creative pursuits.

You Don’t Have To Break Eggs To Make Omelettes

Steve Jobs, one of the most successful creative businessmen in history, is often spoken of as being unkind. He berated his staff for their mistakes. He insulted their work if he didn't like it. He disowned his daughter. He also built a billion-dollar company.

Case studies of Jobs are often given as rationalizations for toxic behavior in business. They say things like, "He got results," "He was unafraid to tell the truth," "You have to break eggs to make an omelette." These rationalizations are wrong. Jobs was forced to quit Apple in 1985 because his reputation was so bad that people didn't want to work with him. In other words, he suffered a significant personal setback because he was unkind. Imagine how much more Jobs could have accomplished if not for those mistakes?

Steve Jobs was successful even though he was unkind for exactly one reason: he was extremely effective at turning his vision into profit. In other words, the people who stuck with Steve Jobs did so because he was also profitable. I'm not as smart as Steve Jobs was, and much less effective at turning my visions into profits. (Realistically, I probably won't found a billion dollar company in my lifetime!) Not having his advantages, I can't afford to give up opportunities by being unkind. Moreover, it's bad for your business if money the only reason people are sticking around. It means that when the money is not as good, those talented people will leave.

Unkindness creates competition. Kindness creates cooperation. Competition can be a good thing when it is healthy. But creative cooperation is always better. The fault for the combative situation with Megan was mine. I was right to share concerns about her track, but I was completely wrong in the way I went about doing so. I shouldn't have criticized her in front of other people, and I should have considered my words more carefully. The saying goes, "Praise in public, criticize in private." People more easily receive constructive criticism when they're allowed to save face with their colleagues. Thus, giving critical feedback in private is a kindness. When choosing my words to Megan, I could have phrased it more kindly, for example by starting with a compliment: "I like your work on this track and I think you can make it even better with some more takes." But an even kinder approach would have been to ask Megan what she thought before I offer my own criticism.

By being unkind I lost Megan's respect, reducing my ability to influence her in the future. It's much more important to retain my ability to influence Megan in the future than it is for me to convince her on this particular point right now. There will be many opportunities in the future for me to convince Megan on this point, if I am able to retain her confidence. When I lose Megan’s confidence I give up all future opportunities to convince her, even if I’m right. Thus, I’ve traded all of my future opportunities for the singular present opportunity. This was a bad trade. If Megan didn’t agree with my assessment I should have backed off and waited for my next opportunity to respectfully approach her again.

Be Kind By Thinking Kindly

When sharing the idea of kindness with others, I hear a common objection: “Why should I say kind things about someone if that’s not what I think? Why should I think kind thoughts about someone who doesn’t deserve it?” To this I respond, “Why are you thinking unkind thoughts at all?” What’s the point of ever thinking unkind thoughts? What good does it do for anybody? You can’t be a positive, happy person if you think unkind, negative thoughts about other people, regardless of whether the other people actually deserve it. Whether you’re a positive or negative person isn’t an ingrained quality, it’s a choice you must make.

I’m not suggesting you should lie about what you think. I’m suggesting you change the way you think into something more positive, so that everyone can benefit. Rather than, “Jane does terrible work,” why not think, “I would like to see Jane’s work improve in this area”? Rather than, “Joe is disorganized and messy,” why not think, “I should buy Joe a Marie Kondo book”? Rather than, “John is lazy and worthless,” why not think, “John can improve themselves by learning to focus and reduce distractions”? The former may or may not be true, but doesn’t help anyone. The latter is always true, and kind, and positive for everyone.

The most serious error you can make is to speak unkindly of someone when they’re not around. Another name for this is ‘gossip’. You never benefit by gossiping. If you find yourself speaking unkindly of someone who’s not present, ask yourself, what can you think and say about this person that is positive, and also true? Reframing your thoughts in a positive way will gain you trust and respect among your colleagues, who will know that you’ll never speak unkindly of them when they’re not around.

Kindness is also a safeguard for when you're wrong. If you always come out swinging with "you phoned it in" then you'll sometimes be wrong in the end, as I was wrong about Megan's track. If you always start with kindness then not only will you avoid being wrong about the issue, you may also learn something.

Kindness means being aware and considerate of the affects of your behavior on others. It doesn't mean being a pushover or a doormat. It doesn't mean avoiding actions because they may hurt others. It means being helping others grow by being positive, supportive, and understanding. Kindness doesn't mean not sharing feedback for fear of hurting feelings, but rather sharing the feedback in a way that takes the other person's feelings into account. It means respecting the ability of the other person to do their job before you open your mouth to give your opinions.

Being kind is harder than being unkind. It takes practice to learn how to give feedback that is both constructive and valuable, and doesn't create resentment. Most people aren't naturally good at it. Authentic kindness is hard. For a starting point, consider being thoughtful about the other person. A great way to discover how to be kind to someone is by putting yourself in their situation. The road to kindness is built on empathy.

The effort you put into being a kinder person will be worth it. People remember kindness. They'll be much more likely to want to work with you again in the future if you are kind to them. But people remember unkindness more. It's much easier to ruin your reputation with unkindness than it is to build it with kindness.

It Is Always Better To Be Kind

Most advice is best taken in moderation; you generally shouldn’t apply any one principle to the exclusion of others. Thus the question is: When is it appropriate to be unkind?

To answer this question, suppose that you and Megan are coworkers, and her work is consistently below standards. Suppose that she agrees that her work is low quality, and she doesn't have a good explanation. Suppose that you're her manager and it's your responsibility to help her raise the quality of her work. Suppose you've been incredibly patient, and you’ve already had multiple constructive, private conversations about improving quality. Now is it time to dispense with kindness and give Megan the brutal honesty about whether she can improve?

The answer is no. You should definitely continue to help Megan improve, but even in this extreme situation where Megan is clearly in the wrong it can only hurt to be unkind to her. You should not hide the truth, but there's no reason to be cold or hard about it. Even in the most hopeless situations there's a possibility that Megan may turn around. Unknown and uncontrollable factors preventing her improvement may suddenly disappear. When Megan gets the opportunity to improve, she'll rely on the kindness and support of those around her to take advantage of it. Brutal honesty will cause Megan to doubt herself. She'll wonder whether she's in the right place. Her resolve to improve herself may diminish. Being kind allows for Megan’s growth, while being unkind prevents it. Kindness isn’t just a principle to apply in some situations, it’s a perennial ethical imperative.

Some people, Steve Jobs among them, elect to take the brutal honesty approach. This approach leaves money on the table. The problem isn't "honesty"; Honesty is necessary. The problem is "brutal". People think you must have brutality to have honesty. This is false. The opposite of "brutal" is "humane". It's more effective to deliver "humane honesty" than "brutal honesty". Brutal honesty works great in dramas. Glengarry Glen Ross used brutal honesty. Game of Thrones is full of brutal honesty. Leave this tactic on the silver screen where it belongs. It's entertaining to watch, but it will destroy a creative team. Kind, humane honesty works better.

If you think, "The truth hurts," then it will. But, if you think, "The truth helps," then it will. The choice is yours.

Further Reading

Jorge Rodriguez