As the Chief People Officer at Petal, I almost invariably get posed the question, “How would you describe the culture at Petal?” by people who are considering joining us. I have an admittedly long-winded, meandering answer: usually describing our mission and company values, explaining that our culture is a manifestation of these values, and providing some examples of behaviors or decisions we’ve made that support my points.
And at the end, I boil it down to this: We have a culture of kindness.
Kindness is a generally misunderstood, overlooked trait. It can connote a softhearted weakling, like that character in a zombie apocalypse movie who naively opens the door to infected strangers. And while no one would say that kindness is a problematic characteristic, it’s not usually on a CEO’s list of top start-up traits (see here, here, and here); those would be things like drive, curiosity, intrinsic smarts, multi-tasking, and mission-orientation.
At Petal, we care about those things, too, but we believe that kindness unlocks the potential for all of the above. It’s the grease that enables effective collaboration, honest feedback, and customer-/peer- compassion. Kindness is a step beyond empathy — it’s empathy-in-action. Academic institutions like Harvard and Yale have already recognized the importance of kindness for admission into their renowned communities; kindness has been proven to be a determining factor in long-lasting relationships (and what is a workplace if not a set of relationships?); and even the National Academy of Sciences’ research provides evidence that kindness is contagious and leads to more collaborative and cooperative behaviors in others.
Longer retention, higher collaboration, contagious cooperation, and ethical orientation? Yes, please! 😍 So, the question is: how does one become an organization that is truly kind?
It must start very early on in a company’s evolution, with the foundational team. This team sets the DNA and norms for the future organization: what’s deemed acceptable and what is not. True kindness relies on authentically caring for others, being thoughtful and attentive to others’ needs, and putting their feelings ahead of your own. It’s embedded in low self-orientation, which, in turn, relies on high self-awareness. Not easy traits to find in the modern-day workplace, but when you do, you’ll have colleagues who support one another and can work with minimal friction.
Once you have that foundation in place, you need to be hyper-vigilant in recruiting. Candidly, it’s hard to tell if a given candidate is truly kind. It can be easy to fake on an ad hoc basis, especially in an interview situation when everyone is on their best behavior. However, we look for small clues like: do they remember the people they met? do they send a thank-you note? do they bring their used glass to the kitchen after the interview? These clues, in addition to questions about what motivates them, can help us understand one’s ‘kindness profile’.
Beyond recruiting, to maintain the ethos of kindness, it’s important to reward people who not only exhibit these behaviors, but who are your organization’s ‘kindness multipliers’. That is, celebrate those who coach others to be kind, who act as role models of kindness and empathy. And, conversely, it’s critical that you are willing and prepared to intervene when patterns of unkind behavior arise at work.
So, what are the on-the-ground benefits of having a kind culture? First, Petal is simply a pleasant place to work — no attitudes, no yelling, few tears. This doesn’t mean we don’t disagree; there is plenty of disagreement, as there should be at a startup. But it’s handled in a mature, respectful way, factoring in others’ opinions and data, and striving for common understanding. Unlike many places I’ve worked before, we don’t tolerate raised voices, speaking poorly of one another, or dismissing another’s views. Instead, there is a ‘let’s find a way, together’ mindset (which happens to be one of our values), cutting through ego-driven perspectives to arrive at solutions that will help our customers and the business.
At Petal, our people exhibit kindness in everyday actions, as well as in key business decisions. Examples abound, but here are a few:
- We pressure-test our business decisions to ensure they truly benefit the customer, versus offering a superficial but short-term benefit with negative long-term consequences. A recent example is the introduction of our rewards program. We deliberately structured it to reward customers who pay on-time for a consecutive 6 months, instead of it being an incentive to spend, spend, spend.
- We do the right thing for our employees, particularly when it really counts. We’ve had a number of employees with complicated immigration circumstances that would have sent them back to their home country had we not intervened and found alternative solutions. These are never simple decisions — they require perseverance, research, and a substantial amount of effort and resources on the part of my team as well as managers. All of this is outweighed by our belief that we should do the right thing for our people.
- We give honest feedback. Candid feedback is truly a gift. But honest — and sometimes difficult — feedback requires the giver to care about the other’s well-being above their own comfort. It’s not easy to do. Yet, every six months, as I read through hundreds of lines of peer and manager feedback during our semi-annual reviews, I’m awestruck by how much our people respect and want to help develop each other.
- We each help load the dishwasher at HQ. There could be 70 people’s dirty dishes in the sink, but instead, we each take turns rinsing and loading the dishwasher. This isn’t seen as the “Office Manager’s job”. It’s our collective responsibility although it does require reminders and such from time-to-time. In our most recent engagement survey, one responder mentioned that “everyone is trying to be more conscious of their mess.”
Even outside of work, many employees take an active role in volunteering to improve their respective communities: tutoring, helping the blind, walking dogs at a local shelter, aiding feral cats, assisting victims of sexual violence. Just a few days ago, a manager sent me a note with ideas of how Petal can support additional community service efforts, in line with our mission and values. This is the kind of behavior and focus on others’ welfare that I marvel at, everyday.
For all of the skeptics out there (cuz I know you’re out there! 😉), you’re right, Petal ≠ Nirvana. That’s definitely not what this blogpost is about. We have had our fair share of team dynamics challenges, miscommunications, stressed-out outbursts, etc. When you bring together 90+ individuals with different points of view, give them an ambitious mission that requires cross-team coordination, and throw in a ton of ambiguity and ownership, you will invariably see in-the-grip behaviors emerge. But the difference at Petal is that our individual team members are naturally inclined to think of others’ well-being, and are willing to put aside their ego in support of doing the right thing. And we have leaders who emphasize and role-model kindness, even in moments of extreme stress.
All of this, in sum, makes an enormous difference in the workplace. We welcome you to check us out to see for yourself! 👀