Can Business Schools Foster a Kindness Revolution?

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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
By Christine Landoll, Jackie Brown, Haley White, Benjamin Kessler
Photo by iStock/Iconic Prototype
How one institution is prioritizing everyday acts of kindness as a way to support individual well-being, societal impact, and organizational success.
  • The Mason Chooses Kindness initiative at George Mason University aims to inspire its community to engage in caring and generous behaviors every day.
  • Research links inclusive, kindness-centered cultures to positive business outcomes, indicating that fostering such cultures is an essential leadership skill.
  • Leaders educated in environments where kindness reigns are more likely to carry that value into the workplace and navigate a complex and diverse world in ways that benefit society at large.


In the current climate in the United States, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become controversial topics. But at the heart of all genuine DEI efforts is a simple principle that has been familiar to us since our childhoods: Be kind. Kindness is the emotional glue that makes heterogeneous communities—such as those found at higher education institutions—add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Unfortunately, habitual kindness often gets lost amidst the busy swirl of campus life. It was this reality that inspired the launch of Mason Chooses Kindness (MCK) at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The purpose of the universitywide initiative, introduced by the school’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB), is to “create and sustain a kindness revolution” across campus. MCK emphasizes intentional everyday gestures such as praising someone for a job well done or holding open a door for another—small acts that go a long way toward creating the texture and setting the tone of university culture.

At Mason’s Donald G. Costello College of Business, we immediately saw the connection between the MCK initiative and AACSB’s revamped 2020 business accreditation standards that call for business schools to increase their commitment to societal impact. No less important, we strongly and sincerely believed in the MCK mission. Therefore, the college decided to take a leading role among Mason’s ten academic units. With the help of a “goodwill team,” we designed and ran an internal pilot program beginning with the 2022–23 academic year.

Below, we share the thinking behind our kindness-oriented pilot, as well as a few takeaways that may be useful to peer schools looking to implement similar on-campus programs.

Why Address Kindness in Business Schools?

All of a university’s academic units contribute to a common campus culture of well-being, but this is especially true for business schools. First, business schools often have missions that align with AACSB’s standards focusing on societal impact. Moreover, as training grounds for future industry leaders, business schools have an obligation to instill in their students inclusive values such as ethics, empathy, and respect for the well-being of others.

Second, business school faculty possess the skill sets necessary to drive changes in organizational cultures, such as developing and executing strategy and launching internal and external communications campaigns. As business faculty often say, “We teach this stuff.”

Finally, an extensive (and growing) body of research has revealed direct correlations between kindness-centered corporate cultures and positive business outcomes. For example, Mandy O’Neill, professor of management and senior scientist at the CWB, has conducted research on this topic. She and her colleagues have found that organizations with cultures of “companionate love” (affectionate bonding between co-workers) can weather higher levels of collective anxiety without incurring increased operational costs or experiencing greater employee burnout.

In other words, a focus on inclusion and kindness is demonstrably good for both a company’s bottom line and the well-being of its stakeholders. Thus, cultivating a kindness-based inclusive culture is an essential leadership skill that business schools must teach.

For these reasons, Costello was well-positioned to be Mason’s “kindness incubator.” After MCK was established, it was only natural that we would help lead a cultural intervention on our own campus.

A Roadmap to the Kindness Revolution

Mason’s kindness committee designed the broader MCK initiative to have six strategic pillars: education and awareness, positive connections, creativity, courageous advocacy, compassion, and well-being. Using these as guideposts, we came up with the following five-phase roadmap for Costello that supports each pillar:

1. Identify kindness champions. Every cultural campaign needs a core group to spread the word and keep momentum going. But it’s necessary to balance the need for ambassadorship with the focus required to get things done, particularly in the critical early stages of the campaign. Otherwise, we might face the classic “too many cooks in the kitchen” dilemma.

An extensive (and growing) body of research has revealed direct correlations between kindness-centered corporate cultures and positive business outcomes.

To avoid this risk, we assembled a small-ish initial group to augment the college’s goodwill team; this group comprised four staff members and key administrators, plus two alumni and a student worker. We carefully managed this modest expansion with an eye toward maintaining the agility and responsiveness of our campaign rollout.

With this group in place, we had strong ambassadorship, as well as additional boots on the ground for carrying out tasks such as running “kindness stations” and “kindness corners,” where members of our campus community can pick up treats and other goodies meant to enhance campus well-being. We set up these areas at different times of the year, such as on World Kindness Day, during our school’s Spring into Well-Being Week, and during final exams. Our goodwill team also run our “gratitude stations,” where people were encouraged to drop notes of kindness for others.

2. Align with strategy. It’s crucial that top organizational leaders view a kindness initiative as something integral to campus culture, not as a peripheral, “nice-to-have” project. That’s why we continually stressed how MCK aligned with Costello’s strategic pillars, identified by our dean Ajay Vinzé. We zeroed in on one pillar in particular: inclusive excellence and cohesive culture. In fact, we believe that this pillar, or something similar, should be a high priority at every business school.

When the goodwill team worked to “sell” MCK to Vinzé and Costello’s associate deans, we presented relevant content from publications such as Forbes and Harvard Business Review. These articles highlighted kindness as a positive contributor to outcomes such as better employee engagementgreater profits, and improved health and well-being of all community members.

Fortunately, the dean readily recognized the value of our project, allocating the financial and material resources necessary to make our kindness campaign a success. He became a staunch supporter, praising the team “for shining a light on the importance of kindness!”

3. Secure commitment throughout your unit. We likely would not have received the full commitment of our senior leadership team had we not also provided a clear plan for measuring the campaign’s performance. We needed to set agreed-upon and transparent metrics to ensure accountability and consensus, prevent false expectations, and avoid any buyer’s remorse down the line. (Read more on our exact metrics below.)

But senior leaders were not the only ones whose buy-in mattered. We also needed to execute a successful strategic communications campaign to instill a common purpose in other essential stakeholders—including alumni, faculty, and, of course, students. We pursued this goal via social media campaigns, news articles in university publications, digital and physical fliers, and presentations by the dean and unit leaders such as senior associate dean Cheryl Druehl.

4. Foster true engagement. As we did with the broader MCK campaign, we especially focused on encouraging low-cost acts of kindness that could be easily replicated campuswide. For example, we installed co-branded Costello–MCK posters in Enterprise Hall, Costello’s home on Mason’s Fairfax campus, and on the Mason Square campus in Arlington, Virginia. The posters included QR codes that directed community members to “thank a teacher” or to nominate someone for “Pats for Patriots,” an online system that our community can use to deliver quick shout-outs and thank-you messages for kind acts.

And thanks to the faculty goodwill team, kindness-oriented exercises were integrated into the curriculum for fundamental and advanced courses on business skills development. For example, students in Developing Professional Skills I, a required introductory class, each were required to perform one random act of kindness and pen reflective essays on their experiences. We also encourage faculty to embed this idea more widely across the curriculum.

The MCK initiative encourages community members to “thank a teacher,” deliver public shout-outs and thank-you messages, and perform random acts of kindness.

Gretchen Hendricks, a senior instructor in the Business Foundations area, shared a particularly touching experience. After facilitating several classroom discussions about kindness, one day she mentioned to students that she recently had learned of a student struggling with food insecurity. Moments after she shared this story, a student “ran out of the classroom,” she says. “He came back 10 minutes later, out of breath, with two gift cards for me to give to that student.”

5. Measure progress. As mentioned above, we have devised two tiers of relevant metrics to gauge the direct and indirect impact of our kindness initiative. For the first tier, we gather data about how many students, faculty, staff, alumni, and curriculum designers take advantage of MCK offerings such as the CWB’s Pats for Patriots and Kindness Ambassadors programs.

For the second tier, we aim to capture the kindness initiative’s impact on the well-being of the entire Costello community. Here, we are sensitive to the “survey fatigue” that can creep in when community members are asked to fill out too many online forms, which can reduce response rates and dilute the value of our data. Worse, an excessive number of surveys can potentially impair well-being by making demands on people’s scarce free time, thus contradicting the goal of our initiative.

So, we instead searched for ways to leverage existing information. For example, Costello faculty are asked to complete the COACHE Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey delivered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This survey includes questions to determine whether respondents feel they are able to achieve work-life balance and whether they feel valued and recognized by their institution.

Comparing COACHE results pre- and post-MCK will help suss out whether our efforts to foster a culture of kindness have improved happiness—and, presumably, faculty retention—for our school.

Steps Toward Cultures of Kindness

Our preliminary numbers suggest that Costello has had a strong response to our pilot program. One interesting outcome is that, while Costello is Mason’s third-largest academic unit in terms of enrollment, its community submitted more “Pats for Patriots” than any other school or college on campus during the 2022–23 academic year. Also, we have received numerous suggestions and requests for expansion of the program, a strong indicator of community enthusiasm.

But we are equally interested in non-numerical signs of success. We find that Costello’s established culture is already warm and welcoming, which aids our cause. Even so, we realize that it will take time and prolonged work to achieve the culture of kindness that we envision, one that continues to develop kind, impactful future leaders. We will know our campaign is complete when kind words and behaviors—from opening a door for a stranger to supporting an anxious colleague—have become enshrined cultural norms at our college.

At Costello, we believe that “Everything is business.” By the same token, businesses cannot thrive at the expense of the society around them. Business leaders who have been educated in environments where kindness reigns are more likely to carry those values with them into the professional realm. As a result, they will be better able to navigate an increasingly complex and diverse world in ways that benefit society at large.

In the words of Business Foundations area chair Jackie Brown, “Some students almost sigh with relief that they can take the time to think about their well-being and how it fits within the larger picture of themselves as professionals. I’ve seen others light up at the idea that kindness and well-being are being acknowledged and highlighted by businesses now.”

All that said, could this strategy work on other campuses? More important, should business schools work to foster a “kindness revolution” in higher ed? Yes—our society depends upon it!

Christine Landoll
Professor of Practice and Director of Business Engagement, Costello College of Business, George Mason University
Jackie Brown
Chair of Business Foundations, Costello College of Business, George Mason University
Haley White
Senior and 2023–24 Kindness Ambassador, Costello College of Business, George Mason University
Benjamin Kessler
Research Communications and Outreach Officer, Costello College of Business, George Mason University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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