A People Movement 2018: Creating a Culture of Kindness

Blog post

Author: Rachel Druckenmiller, Director of Wellbeing

For the past three years, I've had the opportunity to spend a few days with my peers and other thought leaders at A People Movement to talk about what it looks like to build cultures of wellbeing at work and in our communities. Each year I return reinvigorated and recharged, and this year was no exception.

Over the past decade in my work in corporate wellness, the conversation has shifted from one that is focused on the medical model and ROI to one that is focused more on culture and rehumanizing the workplace. What we've learned is that there is more to being well and thriving than having healthy blood pressure and cholesterol. The goal is for people to come to work energized, inspired, and equipped to be the best version of themselves. The result of this more human-centric approach is improved retention, recruitment, morale, engagement, and performance.

If I had to summarize the theme of this year's People Movement in Durham, it would be this:

Be Kind.

It might seem "fluffy" to focus on kindness in the workplace, especially when we're talking about the topic of wellness, but kindness is at the core of lasting relationships, strong leadership, thriving people, and healthy workplaces.

We heard from speakers brought in from all over the country, including Kristen Hadeed, Carrie Grace McQuaid, Kristen Gallagher, Melissa Burmester, Dr. Lee Rowland and Brian Passon and Evin Cole, the co-creators of A People Movement.

1. Create a Culture of Leadership Together

On the first full day of the workshop, Kristen Hadeed, author of Permission to Screw Upand founder of Student Maid, captivated everyone in the room with her storytelling and honest accounts of lessons learned in the trenches of leadership. She guided us through her four ingredients to a great culture: empowerment, feedback, relationships and purpose.


When her employees have a challenge they are facing, she expects them to have two ideas to propose to her about how to address it and empowers them to decide which one would be best. She recognizes the power of stepping back as a leader, so other people can step up. Kristen trusts people with enormous responsibilities before they're ready and gives them permission to make mistakes and learn from them. She offered a different perspective on what it means to care about people.

"Sometimes caring can mean letting people fail."

One of the most powerful tips and tools she shared in her session about being a leader was F.B.I. - feeling + behavior + impact, which was a reframe of Bob Chapman's feedback process at Barry-Wehmiller. It's the recommended way of giving honest feedback - corrective or recognition-based - in order to build trust and create psychological safety.

How often have we been in a situation with someone where they've said something generic like, "Great job," rather than being more specific? The blanket praise has little, if any impact. People want to know exactly what they need to work on and exactly what they did well. Here's what "giving an FBI" might look like:

  • Feeling: how you felt when someone did something (i.e., "I felt so proud today...)
  • Behavior: what specific behavior made you feel that way (...when you spoke up and shared your opinion.)
  • Impact: what effect the behavior had (I'm not sure if you noticed, but you speaking up inspired others to share their opinions.")

If the FBI was for something that was more challenging to talk about, like a problem, you would end it with something like, "I don't want to feel that way. Can you help me?" or "I want to make a change / start a new behavior, but I don't know how or where to start. Can you help me?" Reframing feedback in this way creates safety and fosters meaningful connection.

I was excited to hear Kristen talk about the power of relationships, as I include a discussion of that topic and its significance to our overall wellbeing in a lot of trainings I deliver to companies. What I remember most about what Kristen shared in this section was the no texting rule at Student Maid and the importance of in-person interactions. She doesn't want technology replacing relationships. Mind you, most of her employees grew up texting, but she advocates for face-to-face and phone interactions unless the issue is something technical (like a client address) that makes sense to send through text. At Student Maid, they foster relationships through one-on-ones, interviewing employees about their dreams and how the company can help them reach those dreams, and through pre-shift "getting to know you" Q&A sessions in which employees ask each other questions to dig deeper into what makes each one tick.

We have to give people permission to bring empathy to work and to be vulnerable. When we create a culture of safety and connection, that becomes possible.

The last component of creating a culture of leadership together centers around purpose. Student Maid touts:

"We're not a cleaning company. We're an education company. We're about growing, not about cleaning."

Kristen's focus is on growing people, so they can become effective leaders, and in her book, she shares stories of former employees who have done just that. She and her team now teach classes to companies and leaders about FBI, empowerment, relationships and purpose. To learn more about Kristen's work, check out her website.

SIG - Culture - Kindness - Wellbeing - Rachel Druckenmiller

2. Spread Kindness like Confetti

Carrie Grace McQuaid has devoted her life to spreading joy and kindness wherever she goes. From facilitating Kind Days in Durham, celebrating her birthday on a Southwest flight by giving goody bags to nearly 200 passengers, or encouraging everyone to practice five minutes of awesome kindness each day, Carrie Grace emanates joy and generosity. She spoke about kindness and compassion and about helping others rise by filling them up.

Here are a few nuggets of wisdom and insight from her session:

  • Kindness is the great equalizer. No matter someone's position or status, kindness evens the playing field. Each of us has opportunities every day to be kind.
  • Small can be mighty. Sometimes something small feels insignificant, but even a cup of coffee can change someone's day and even transform their outlook on life - that's what happened for Joe, one of the employees at the conference hotel. He was struggling and ended up on the streets after the economic downtown in 2008-2009. Someone bought him a cup of coffee at a gas station on Christmas Day, and it was just the hope he needed to persist. He shared his story with us, and there wasn't a dry eye in the room. He is warm and kind and welcoming, perfect for a position in hospitality.

Always assume you have no idea of the backstory.

  • People carry invisible pain. How often do we make assumptions about people and why they are the way they are? So often, we are missing information and don't have the full story. That is just another reason to be kind to people, as we never know what someone is going through. When I was going through recovering from mono last year, I was still conveying on the surface that I could handle all of my responsibilities and expectations, but the truth is that I was really struggling. This is yet another reason to have compassion for people. Everyone is fighting a battle. Be kind to them.

Followed Carrie's session, all of us had the opportunity to spread kindness to the community around us. Each of us was given two boxes of Tom's shoes - one to keep and one to give away to a stranger. We spent the afternoon running around Durham in teams of four looking for strangers who wore the same size shoe as each of us. We were also tasked to find three things we had in common with that person. Our team gave our shoes to a woman at the bus station whose birthday was the following day; a mentor teacher who tutors gifted students in an after school program at the Emily K Center; and Angela, a spunky front desk greeter at the Durham YMCA. It turns out that we both love The Voice, singing and the colors purple and blue!

SIG - Culture - Kindness - Wellbeing - Rachel Druckenmiller
SIG - Culture - Kindness - Wellbeing - Rachel Druckenmiller

3. Convey "We Care" from Day One: Onboard with Intention

Kristen Gallagher from Edify, whose background is in HR consulting and coaching, gave us a new perspective on something most of us don't think about much - onboarding. What kind of experience are we giving people as they join our organizations and our health and wellbeing initiatives? Is it positive and memorable or disjointed and confusing?

We were challenged to reflect back on the most human experience we have had at work and to recall our first job, worst job, and best job. We explored what it was about each of those experiences that stuck with us. Kristen shared that one in three employees will leave in the first six months of a new job, and another third will decide in the following six months whether they are going to leave within their first two years. When we think about all of the challenges with mental health - anxiety, depression, the opioid crisis - it's crucial to consider the role of communication, management practices, support, flexibility, and clarity of expectations on an employee's decision to remain and engage or to check out and leave.

"So often, we see and treat people like 'an accountant' vs. 'a human.'"

Kristen talked about the importance of rehumanizing the onboarding experience, making it a celebration, so the new employee feels warmly welcomed and wanted. The same goes for initiatives we implement that are intended to foster health and wellbeing. We were challenged to think about what we do to set expectations, provide support and communication and offer clarity on goals and tasks. If we were to more intentionally focus on the human experience of onboarding in our organizations, everyone would benefit. To learn more about Kristen's work, check out her website.

4. Kindness Has a Direct, Causal & Measurable Effect on Wellbeing

The topic of kindness isn't one that most people consider to be a critical business imperative. Some may have a perception that kindness is equivalent to weakness or that it's not important enough to talk about in strategic planning sessions. "Kindness" isn't one of the words we're apt to see in most companies' vision or mission statements.

Perhaps it should be.

Kindness is powerful and has a significant impact on our wellbeing.

SIG - Culture - Kindness - Wellbeing - Rachel Druckenmiller
Melissa and Lee from shared what they have learned through their research about the science-based business case for kindness. In their research with Oxford University, they've determined:
"Kindness has a direct, causal, andmeasurable effect on wellbeing."

Kindness reduces anxiety, especially for people with social anxiety. Kindness mitigates the effects of stress. Being kind to others by spending money on them is good for your heart and, in one study, it reduced blood pressure as much as hypertensive medications or exercise. Doing acts of kindness reduces the intensity of the common cold and boosts immunity. People who report being lonely experience the greatest boost in wellbeing and happiness when giving and receiving acts of kindness.

In their research they also found that nice guys finish first. The people who were known for being generous with their ideas and sharing with others were more likely to be viewed as leaders, even without a formal leadership position.

As a group, we considered the following questions:

  1. What are acts of kindness in your workplace?
  2. What are unkind acts?

Regardless of the acts of kindness or unkindness happening in your organization, here's the good news:

Everyone has the capacity for kindness.

It starts with each one of us taking the initiative to extend kindness to others with the intention of connection and warmth rather than an expectation of reciprocity.

Be kind whenever possible. It's always possible.

5. Make More Time for Play and Belly Laughs

What I needed more than anything else from the workshop was time to recharge and feel joyful again. As an overachiever who is always upping the ante in my own life about what it means to be succeed, I don't prioritize fun and play enough. The past year was particularly challenging for me physically, emotionally, mentally and relationally, so I welcomed the opportunity to let loose a bit (something that is a bit of a struggle for me at times!).

Brian Passon and Evin Cole, the co-creators of A People Movement, have a knack for coming up with creative, engaging and fun ways to foster connection and joy. Whether it's bringing a coffee or food truck in for the snack breaks or meals, giving everyone name tags with our nickname and circus act on one side (that would be "Drucky Pants the Singer" for me) and our first and preferred way of being greeted (Bear Hug for me), or hosting a lip sync battle and sock hop with a photo booth, they know how to create a memorable and meaningful experience.

SIG - Culture - Kindness - Wellbeing - Rachel Druckenmiller

I belly laughed more in about two days than I had in the past six months. I was reminded of what it is like to feel vibrant, alive and connected. All of us need those moments and those reminders. They're what get us through the tough times and the moments of frustration, overwhelm and disconnection.

Considering how much time each of us spends at or on work in a given week, why not try to make work more enjoyable? Why not shift our perspective and try to make laughter at work more of the norm and less of a disruption and assumption that people aren't being productive? When we're having fun, we are more engaged, connected, creative and productive. As Bob Chapman writes in Everybody Matters,

"People are so joyful, vibrant and alive when they're having fun. 
Why can't it be that way when they are working?"

As you look forward to the rest of the 2018 and consider your engagement, culture and wellbeing strategies, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What are we doing to spark joy and give our people opportunities to feel alive and have fun?
  2. How are we incorporating kindness into what we do at our company?
  3. How are we creating memorable, meaningful experiences that will leave our people feeling filled up and like they are part of something special?


Do you need guidance or support in answering any of those questions for your organization or are you looking for trainings or keynotes to bring to your organization?

Email Rachel here

Read Rachel's last blog, Best Places to Work HR Roundtable Recap!