Whole Foods' Founder Says One Skill Makes You Great
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Whole Foods' Founder Says One Skill Makes You Great

5 Min Read
September 18, 2020

Kindness at work is not just a trendy idea in office politics. The best leaders know showing compassion and relating well to others is crucial to creating a positive work environment and professional success.

A 10-year longitudinal study of more than 2,700 leadership interviews by Navalent, an organizational and leadership consulting firm, shows strong decision-making skills and deep industry knowledge are important to being a good leader. But those things don't make you great. So what does? Learning to build solid relationships. The main ingredient: kindness.

"Being kind and caring is how we build trust," said John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, a unit of Amazon.com (AMZN). In turn, that trust builds better teams and long-term relationships with customers.

"You want to do business with people who won't cheat you," added Mackey, author of "Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business."

Sounds simple enough. Yet, some of the most memorable CEOs are anything but kind. They use cutthroat tactics to eliminate rivals in office politics. They treat workers with disdain. And they flaunt their bad behavior.

Take corporate executive Albert Dunlap. His nickname alternated from "Chainsaw Al" to "Rambo In Pinstripes." He was a turnaround specialist in the 1990s who relied on mass layoffs. He even posed for a photo wearing an ammo belt across his chest. It was later revealed his turnarounds had more to do with fraud than sound strategy. He's not the only one. Business leaders are often portrayed as tough guys doing tough things, Mackey says.

"I reject that," Mackey told Investor's Business Daily. "It's an old stereotype. (Leaders) can be both strong and caring."

Here's how to add kindness to your office politics:

Make Kindness At Work The Paradigm In Office Politics

Competition is key to business success. But kindness at work is also important in office politics.

"Competition without a balance of other attributes, like cooperation and service, can quickly become counterproductive and toxic," Mackey writes.

Instead of thinking of business as a battlefield or a jungle, think of it as a community.

"The recognition that every enterprise is composed of a variety of stakeholders who are all voluntarily exchanging with the business for mutual gain and benefit is one of the foundational tenets of Conscious Capitalism," he said.
When we do that, every stakeholder flourishes, the business flourishes, and our larger society flourishes, he adds.

Mackey says leaders should adopt the concept of servant leadership where the role of the leader is to serve the organization rather than wielding power over it.

Tame The Polarization Of Office Politics

Servant leaders prioritize the needs of others and derive authority from the heartfelt impulse to help. This doesn't mean a leader must be entirely self-sacrificing. Balance is the goal.

"This idea that we have to be either Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler doesn't serve us well," Mackey said. "We have to create value for all stakeholders."

One way Whole Foods Market employees and leaders practice kindness at work is to close every meeting with gratitude. People are invited to honor each other's positive contributions, whether it's "simple acts of kindness or significant business achievements," Mackey writes. "It helps bind a team together," Mackey added.

Mackey writes that many successful companies, such as Trader Joe's, Starbucks (SBUX) and Southwest Airlines (LUV) practice kindness at work.

Their leaders and employees routinely and publicly show gratitude, compassion and generosity.

To be sure, being kind doesn't mean you turn into a doormat in office politics. Mackey says be wary of the small percentage of sociopaths in the population. Don't be a martyr. Walk away and protect yourself.

Lead By Example With Kindness At Work

Broadcast journalist Adrienne Bankert has made it her signature attribute to be kind, whether it's at work or anywhere else. Bankert, whose book "Your Hidden Superpower: The Kindness That Makes You Unbeatable At Work And Connects You With Anyone," says, "Your kind self is your best self."

Bankert says one of the most basic ways to be kind at work is to recognize everyone around you as being important in their own unique way.

Look people in the eye when you greet them, she says. If you don't remember their name (it happens to everyone) don't say that. Instead, say you remember their face. Why? Being remembered is important to everyone.

"It creates a moment of pause and embrace," Bankert said. "It says: You're not just another cog in the wheel."

Express Gratitude Generously

As a reporter for ABC News and Good Morning America, Bankert is in front of the camera and often gets most of the praise for a job well done. But she knows the people behind the camera make a lot of the magic happen. She makes sure they know how much she appreciates them. So when it's time to get a bite to eat, for example, she urges the crew to go first while she watches over the equipment.

"They don't always feel respected," Bankert explained. "I always endeavor to balance the scale."

Bankert says how you deal with workplace gossip and office politics is another way to show your kindness at work. In short, avoid it. Even when someone parks themselves at your desk to dish on someone.

Look at your watch and tell them you have to excuse yourself to make a call — any call, Bankert says.

If it's really egregious gossip, make your point and exit as gracefully as possible. "You can simply say: This is uncalled for," Bankert said.