Scan the newspaper headlines, or switch on cable news for a few minutes, and it’s easy to conclude that we are living through harsh, mean, divisive times.
But a recent column in the Washington Post reminded me of a truth that is even easier to overlook: Just as bad behavior tends to spread, so too does good behavior. Kindness, it turns out, is contagious. The Post article highlighted the work of Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki, who documents what he calls “positive conformity.” In his research, “participants who believed others were more generous became more generous themselves.” This suggests that “kindness is contagious, and that it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.”
Zaki’s insight is vital for improving society, but it applies to companies too. Almost every leader I know wants his or her colleagues to go above and beyond normal standards of service, to impress customers with their kindness. Many of these leaders also believe that achieving this goal is largely a matter of policies and procedures — kindness as a directive. Actually, the way to unleash kindness in your organization is to treat it like a contagion, and to create the conditions under which everybody catches it.
Consider one instructive case study. I recently immersed myself in the customer-service transformation of Mercedes-Benz USA, the sales-and-service arm of the German automaker. When Stephen Cannon became president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, he recognized that success was about more than just his vehicles. It was about how much the people who sold and serviced the cars cared and how generously they behaved. “Every encounter with the brand,” he declared, “must be as extraordinary as the machine itself.” And almost every encounter with the brand, he understood, came down to a personal encounter with a human being in a dealership who could either act in ways that were memorable, or could act the rote way most people in most dealerships act.