Bake Off has something to teach us about kindness

Kindness is rarely celebrated, but it enhances the best qualities in people.

In a business that is under disruption, sometimes the best decision you can make is to be kind.

At the IPA conference for International Women’s Day, one of the keynote speakers, Pinky Lilani, founder of Women of the Future Awards, talked about the importance of kindness in modern leadership. She said that her business had been built on the kindness of others. Lilani created the Kindness & Leadership 50 leading lights and pointed out that kindness is seldom celebrated. 

The phenomenal early success of The Great British Bake Off is a prominent example of the power of kindness in popular culture.  

Remember this season? Watching Rahul win was a great pleasure; finally, an introvert in the spotlight. It was one of the highlights of archetypal British TV. Ratings were strong (if not quite BBC level), the bottoms are no longer soggy and everyone had a lot of fun with veganism.

One missing ingredient, though, was the kindness of Mel and Sue, both to each other – there’s a genuine relationship there, not a manufactured one – and to the candidates. Sandy and Noel are mischievously anarchic. But they are not as kind as Mel and Sue.

Sue revealed that she and Mel walked off the set during Bake Off's first season because the producers were trying to coax human-interest drama – and the inevitable tears – out of the contestants. "We felt uncomfortable with it and we said: 'We don't think you've got the right presenters,'" Sue told the Telegraph. "I'm proud that we did that, because what we were saying was: 'Let's try and do this a different way.' And no-one ever cried again.

"Maybe they cry because their soufflé collapsed, but nobody's crying because someone's going: 'Does this mean a lot about your grandmother?'" Bringing up dead relatives at stressful times is a time-honored technique for introducing tension into a TV show, but it's no way to treat your family.

Furthermore, when contestants did cry – out of frustration or disappointment, generally – Mel and Sue had a plan to help them. Sue was reported as saying: "If we see them crying or something, Mel and I will go over there and put our coats over them, or swear a lot because we know then that the film won't be able to be used."

Kindness is perhaps the polar opposite of the traditional patriarchal business values of ruthlessness and power politics. Just as we wrote in The Glass Wall, the toxic masculinity that pervades many organisations excludes all kinds of talented people from developing their full potential at work.

Lilani said: "With kindness comes a feeling that is not easily forgotten. Think about customer service that has delighted you; think about a boss who inspired you to be where you are today; think about a brand or business you are loyal to because they seem to genuinely care. Kindness enhances the best qualities in people; it disarms a disagreement and it brings about collaborations which you may never have dreamed possible."

Think about your own career path. It’s absolutely true that you will never forget the kindness of others.  And as Lilani added during her talk, you also never forget unkindness. 

Being unkind is often unthinking and casual. But it never feels like that to the recipient. 

Kindness depends on there being nothing immediately in it for you. Pay it forward.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

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