How a Culture of Compliance Kills Kindness

How a Culture of Compliance Kills Kindness

February 28, 2018

What makes a human a sentient being is the ability to ask ‘why?’ Senior Advisor to the WKUSA Board Michael Lloyd-White unpacks some of the myths of kindness and why a culture of compliance takes away our ability to exercise personal judgement – particularly in situations where kindness should usurp the rule book…

By Michael Lloyd-White

It may be fair to argue that a culture of compliance has created an imbalance between a duty of care and the care factor. We have been conditioned to comply since we were children often because compliance provides a level of safety and predictability, which then serves as a means for adults to generally conform to social norms.

To maintain a sense of order, compliance has become a well-trodden path; it is both familiar and rarely challenged, and, when those who do challenge the norm, they are often subject to ridicule, social estrangement or punishment.

Part of the problem we face today, is that most cultures have naturalised the idea, over time, that kindness is singularly a feminine expression or, it is often associated with tropes that signify weakness or fragility.

More than ever, we need to harness and encourage a culture of critical thinking, and continue to ask ourselves, ‘how?’ and ‘why?’.

I have a theory I would like to share with you.

For years, I’ve been talking about how kindness has been missing-in-action from our culture. After conversations with many people from around the world, from various industries, and, who are not necessarily in the kindness space, I feel confident enough to present a theory on how and why kindness became unfashionable.

In some countries, to be called ‘kind’, may be considered an insult, or, it is used as a sarcasm to connote naivety. In corporate culture, I’ve found people were reluctant to use the word kindness in a professional sense as it implied weakness; words like ‘wellness’, ‘well-being’ or ‘mindfulness’ have been fashionable, if not vague, substitutes.

If we jump back to 1828, a Websters’ dictionary described kindness as follows:

KINDNESS, n. [from kind, the adjective.]

  1. Good will; benevolence; that temper or disposition which delights in contributing to the happiness of others, which is exercised cheerfully in gratifying their wishes, supplying their wants or alleviating their distresses; benignity of nature. Kindness ever accompanies love. “There is no man whose kindness we may not sometime want, or by whose malice we may not sometime suffer.”
  2. Act of good will; beneficence; any act of benevolence which promotes the happiness or welfare of others. Charity, hospitality, attentions to the wants of others, etc., are deemed acts of kindness, or kindnesses. Acts 28.

To me, I don’t think Webster’s really captures the essence of kindness as it seems limited to giving and I know a lot of people and companies that give but may not necessarily embody a ‘spirit of kindness’. As I’ve said before, if you are doing an act of kindness and expecting something in return, you are doing business not kindness.

An act of kindness has multiple meanings to different people in varied circumstances and there are definitely degrees of kindness. To me, a true act of kindness embodies selflessness. In this sense, one does not expect to receive anything, not even joy or acknowledgement for the deed. If we are to truly perform a selfless act, it would require us to leave our comfort zone for the benefit of another, even if that meant doing something we would rather not do or possibly even placing something at risk to do so.

Given the nobility of the kindness ideal, why would we not want to formalise the use of this word, in all its lucid simplicity, in our schools, workplaces, Government or indeed, contractual agreements and when did using the word kindness become so taboo? Well, I have come to believe, like in all matters relating to lowering the benchmark of society, this happened gradually through the subtle power of influence over time, which has eroded standards of civil conduct, and in doing so, removed kindness from our vernacular. There were no protests or demonstrations in the streets against or for Government or big business to remove kindness from the agenda. It just happened, one deed at a time, until the meaning of kindness lost its power because exercising true kindness is often inconvenient or comes at a real, or perceived, personal cost.

The good news is that kindness is resilient. It is an ideal that endures because it appeals to our better selves.

Some may find exercising kindness to be intimidating or inconvenient – on a macro level, in times of war or, just complying to a system in the workplace which is designed to benefit the bottom-line rather than another human being.

Most of us understand the ‘banality of evil’ as defined after the Nuremberg trials, which demonstrated that a culture of compliance, executed by regular people, leads to a frightening indifference to another person’s suffering.  While that may be an extremity, we can apply the same logic to an insurance company whereby an indifferent stroke of a key determines whether a claim is approved or denied; the assessor gives zero consideration to the impact that decision has on the insured because their responsibility is not to humanity it is to the bottom line as deemed by the board who are accountable to its shareholders.  This is a tired narrative that allows us to abscond from an honourable obligation to serve one another.

To get beyond this tired narrative, that we know does not work, we must remind ourselves daily, ‘what is the kinder option in this situation?’

In reality, kindness is a word that signifies strength and power and it is not gender-specific.

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We have witnessed adverse side effects on a community when kindness is removed from the agenda. We see the emergence of “isms” chauvinism, narcissism, hedonism, extremism, nationalism all of which give rise to bullying, domestic violence, depression and suicide which in turn rely on cultivating a culture of bystander behaviour, underpinned by fear and hate. Our overwhelming sense of belonging and fear of exclusion sees many of us seek the safety of silence when we see something wrong.

The irony is true grit, is not opting for violence over consideration, or choosing silence over speaking out against an injustice. True grit is to choose the kinder option at your own expense.

Choosing the kinder option requires courage.

The truth is when we unwind the spin around kindness and get back to its origins, it has always been about the courage to be kind; there is no true act of courage that is not tempered with kindness because both are selfless – and that is no easy task in a culture that celebrates extreme individualism.

Despite being the path of most resistance, kindness is making a comeback – and we can all do our part to make it a mainstay once more.


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