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Kindness fuels innovation

Kindness and belonging in a business are the fuel of innovation and come with guaranteed results. If you don’t believe me, ask Google.

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On a mission to transform how companies think about leadership, I recently published what turned out to be one of bluenotes’ most read articles:  The Future of Leadership is Kindness. I was humbled by the response. Thousands of people around the world have found the concept resonated with them – so simple yet true; treat others the way you want to be treated.

“I’m not going to sit idly by and watch people get bullied. I’m no longer going to sit by and let people live anything but their best lives.”     - Jim Hogan, Chief Innovation Evangelist for Google Cloud

In my quest to inspire companies to attract and retain a diverse workforce, where leaders create thriving environments with civility and respect, I met Jim Hogan. Jim is Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist for Google Cloud and Vice President for Alphabet’s Disability Alliance, the Employee Resource Group (ERG) for Google (and Alphabet) employees who care about disabilities, learning differences, special needs, and neurodiversity, for themselves or a child, relative, or friend.

And he is a shining example of rising above adversity, having faced enormous challenges in his life within the workplace and personally. Today he has found belonging and inspires everyone around him to live their best lives.

“I’m not going to sit idly by and watch people get bullied. I’m no longer going to sit by and let people, you know, live anything but their best lives...,”  Jim says in his firm but passionate manner. 

This is particularly relevant when it comes to innovation. According to Jim, belonging is actually causal in success in innovation - something he has experienced firsthand as an autistic (or neuro-distinct as he prefers to identify) person.

Below is the recording of our eye-opening conversation.

Kindness sparks empathy

“I needed to come up with a concept that was simple for people to understand,” Jim says.

“kindness is simple for people to understand. It’s like, don’t be mean, be kind. It’s a T-shirt. So if you can fit it on a bumper sticker, it’s something we can do globally. It’s something that people don’t really understand: you’re kind, that is going to go a long way to building belonging.”

When speaking about how being “good” wins in the long-run, Jim admits he wasn’t always kind.

“I tried the being a jerk route, being the guy who shouted people down. I basically realised that the outcomes that you achieve then are worse than outcomes you achieve when you’re kind.”

And he adds he is the test case of how employees react to unkindness. “I went through so much trauma and I (had) so much PTSD because corporate America was so unkind to me and so to defend myself, I used to put up this angry firewall.”

Jim is now a champion for leadership, advising his mentees to “practice” asking questions and building empathy in teams.

“There’s a time where you have to stop and get to know people, use empathy and understand what’s going on,” he explains. “And that’s when I start talking about the whole heart leadership versus head leadership.

“That comes from experience and understanding. I have executives who I mentor that come to me and say; I just don’t understand. Like sometimes teams may have this one person, that is not performing very well.”

Jim responds to that with simple but essential questions centered on empathy: “have you had a conversation with them? Have you asked them what’s going on in their lives? They may be having something going on at home.”

They are simple questions but he finds many leaders across society are not asking them. And Jim acknowledges sometimes there are team members who are not acting how they are supposed to. That’s human.

When talking about innovation, hostilities can come down to million dollar problems. Leaders need to have escalation plans in place, focused on outcomes.  Set ground rules on what is supposed to happen if there is a disagreement or hostility on the team. Allowing room for team dysfunction and pathways to resolving problems is essential.

Diversity and Inclusion

Jim had another great line: diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance. We spoke at length about how we can do better at including all of us and how more diverse teams, with different perspectives, generate better results.

Jim says around 80 per cent of the population is neuro-typical - which means 20 per cent is neuro-distinct. That could be from, as in Jim’s case, being autistic, or it could result from a condition, like having a traumatic brain injury, that can impact your way of thinking. When you introduce neuro-distinct people on your teams you make sure whatever products you develop include all the different ways people think.

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Carina and Jim recording the podcast

Is rudeness costing us more than morale? Yes, dollars!

In a recent TED talk, Christine Porath explores the repercussions of Incivility.

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On her yearlong research study, she found small uncivil actions can lead to much bigger problems like aggression and violence. Her study found rudeness made people less motivated.

Two thirds cut back on their efforts, 80 per cent lost work time and 12 per cent left their job.

After Christine’s study was published, she received a call from multinational technology conglomerate CISCO. They estimated, conservatively, incivility is costing them $US12 million a year.

Jim said something that resonates with this: “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” He also finds creating a safe space is harder than sayingspeak up this is a safe space”.

He asks his executives to welcome when people challenge them. If a leader asks their team to do X and then the team goes back to their desk and chats about how doing X, in that way, will in the long run result in failure due to Y, then leaders need to focus on getting the Y out of their people.

He calls this psychological safety.

In his career experience, when psychological safety is achieved, teams’ outcomes and deliveries go up 40 per cent.

Do the hard thing and choose Kindness

I am completely sold. Being a good person, leading with empathy and kindness, delivers better results. Better products and services for our communities. Empowering people to make the right choices.

There is a reason why Michelle Obama’s catch phrase “when they go low, we go high” is so famous. “Going low is easy, which is why people go to it,” Obama said. “It’s easy to go low. It’s easy to lead by fear. It’s easy to be divisive. It’s easy to make people feel afraid.”

Jim challenges you to do the hard thing and innovate via kindness. Today Jim is known as an innovator, human rights activist and a strong representative of what is possible for neuro-diverse individuals.

Nice guys finish last? Quite the opposite. Jim is living proof.

Carina Parisella is Tribe Lead, Head of Technology Workforce at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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