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Why We Need Kind and Compassionate Leaders

Kindness, compassion and empathy will change toxic workplaces

Leaders in business schools, organizations and in politics are taught to lead with their heads and not with their hearts. Leaders are expected to be strategic, rational, tough, bottom-line business people who focus on results. Yet, recent research on successful leaders and the current turbulent economic and social times calls out for a different style of leader—one that exhibits kindness, compassion and empathy.

Driving, directive, coercive styles of leadership may move people and get results in the short-term, but the dissonance it creates is associated with toxic relationships and emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear.

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In my work, I see increasing prevalence of leaders who engage in trash-talking, or “smack-talking,” about their opponents or competitors and under the stress for results, revert back to an authoritarian, directive style of leadership. Further these kinds of leaders often see their job as a form of warfare, or athletic competition complete with appropriate jargon to go with it. We need only look at political leaders engaged in election cycles to see the descent into character assassination and bottom-of-the barrel personal attacks.

Brad Stone and Aaron Ricadela, writing in Bloomsberg Business Week, commented on smack-talking Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison calling the HP board “idiots” for firing Mark Hurd, and ridiculing SAP co-founder Hass Plattner’s “wild Einstein hair” in an email to the Wall Street Journal or even dissing Bill Gates as not being so smart.

In my article in Psychology Today, “Why Steve Jobs Was Not A Leader,” I said, “Jobs’ leadership style could be characterized as the old school ‘carrot and stick’ approach, using praise and flattery, but mostly the stick of fear and criticism. When Fortune magazine profiled America’s toughest bosses, it said of Jobs, his ‘inhuman drive for perfection can burn out even the most motivated worker.’ Fortune writer, Leander Kahney claimed Jobs’ verbal assaults on staff, replete with anger and foul language, were terrifying to staff. Fortune dubbed Jobs as ‘one of Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniacs.’”

Ronald Riggio, writing in Psychology Today argues that although Jobs was a visionary leader, a master marketer and presenter, he “could also be a tyrant. He was obsessively controlling, and given to fits of rage, throwing tantrums…took credit for others’ ideas…and fell short of the qualities possessed by the very best leaders.” Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of Jobs is a very revealing picture of both sides of Jobs’ character—the brilliant, charismatic visionary, and the impulsive, crude, and mean-spirited man. He thought nothing of parking in handicapped parking spaces, and denied the paternity of his first daughter so that she and her mother had to live on welfare. Jobs, like Bill Gates, was a very wealthy man, yet according to public records, made no substantial commitments to charities or worthy causes.

Robert Sutton, a management professor at Stanford University, examined the behavior of abusive bosses, published in his book, The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. In his research he ran across many examples of Silicon Valley and high-tech leaders who extolled the virtues of Jobs abusive behavior as being necessary to build a successful company. Sutton contended, “it is troubling that there’s this notion in our culture that if you’re a winner, it’s okay to be an asshole.”

Sutton argues that despite Jobs’ and Apple’s success, his research shows that abusive bosses are bad for the bottom line, and there are far more successful companies—such as Google, Virgin Atlantic, Procter & Gamble and Southwest Airlines, for example—that are not led by abusive bosses.

According to Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, bad boss behavior seems to be pandemic and now, a new survey reveals that self-oriented bosses are more prevalent than ever. In a survey Taylor commissioned of 1,002 adults, 86% of Americans felt that too often, bad boss behaviors fly under the radar until it’s too late, affecting too many people. According to an earlier study, 70% of workers said they believed employees must be careful when managing up with bosses, or they could lose their jobs. A five-year, national study compared bad, childish traits, including stubbornness, self-oriented, overly demanding, impulsiveness, interrupting and tantrum-throwing in bosses between 2004 to 2009, and found “self-oriented” spiked by 50% to the top spot in that period. In the same study conducted by a global research firm, seven in 10 Americans said “bosses and toddlers with too much power act alike.”

Swedish researchers, led by Anna Nyberg at the Stress Institute in Stockholm, have published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine on the issue of leaders’ behavior and employee health. They studied more than 3,100 men over a 10-year period in typical work settings. They found that employees who had managers who were incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative, were 60% more likely to suffered a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition. By contrast, employees who worked with “good” leaders were 40% less likely to suffer heart problems.  Nyberg said, “for all those who work under managers who they perceive behave strangely, or in any way they don’t understand, and they feel stressed, the study confirms this develops into a health risk.”

A study of 6,000 British office workers found employees who felt that their supervisors treated them fairly had a 30% lower risk of heart disease. A 2008 meta-analysis of the connection between health and leadership by Jana Kuoppala and associates concluded that good leadership was associated with a 27% reduction in sick leave and a 46% reduction in disability pensions. The same study concluded that employees with good leaders were 40% more likely to report the highest levels of psychological well-being including lower levels of anxiety and depression.

In an article by Richard Williams, Wallace Higgins and Harvey Greenberg, published in the Boston Globe, they cited numerous research studies regarding leadership style and the health of employees. They concluded “your boss can cause you stress, induce depression and anxiety or even trigger the onset of serious illnesses. It is not just bad managers who can negatively affect employee health, but it is also the lackadaisical and mediocre who put employees on the sick list.And the cost is huge in terms of lost productivity, healthcare costs and employee turnover. The authors argue that a whole new field of litigation in the U.S. is developing-“lawsuits against ‘bad bosses’ and the organizations that negligently allow them to supervise.”

The workplace is increasingly characterized by incidents of incivility and bullying and this may be part of a general societal trend, exacerbated by tough economic times.

A startling 37% of American workers—roughly 54 million people—have been bullied at work according to a 2007 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The consequences of such bullying have spread to families, and other institutions and cost organizations reduced creativity, low morale and increased turnover. According to the Institute, 40% of the targets of bulling never told their employers, and of those that did, 62% reported that they were ignored. According to a 2007 survey by Zogby International, almost 50% of the U.S. workers report they have experience or witnessed some kind of bullying—verbal abuse, insults, threats, screaming, sarcasm or ostracism. One study by John Medina showed that workers stressed by bullying performed 50% worse on cognitive tests. Other studies estimate the financial costs of bullying at more than $200 billion per year.

The recent economic downturn, with layoffs and financial pressures on managers to perform may have exacerbated the bullying problem. Research conducted by Wayne Hochwarter and Samantha Englehardt at Florida State University concluded that “employer-employee relations are at one of the lowest points in history,” with a significant decline in basic civility.

Pier M. Forni, author of The Civility Solution: What To Do When People Are Rude and director of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University says, “In today’s American, incivility is on prominent display: in the schools, where bullying is pervasive; in the workplace, where an increasing number are more stressed out by coworkers than their jobs; on the roads, where road rage mains and kills; in politics where strident intolerance takes the place of earnest dialogue; and on the web, where man check their inhibitions at the digital door.” Gary Namie, a psychologist and co-founder of The Workplace Bullying Institute contends, “how in the world can we stop bullying in schools, in the workplace, in politics, when it is so close to our national character right now?”

While it’s difficult to argue with the necessity of leaders who produce results, it’s how those results are achieved that matter. And essential qualities of character and positive relationships are a fundamental component.

The touching story of Brandon Cook of New Hampshire and his cancer-stricken grandmother has gone viral on the Internet. When she was unable to eat the hospital soup, Cook tired to get her favorite clam chowder from Panera Bread on the day the store didn’t make it. As a result of a plea from Cook, Panera made the soup especially for Cook’s grandmother including a box of cookies as a gift from the staff.

Why did this and other stories like it strike such a chord with people?

Bill Taylor, writing in the Harvard Business Review blog network believes it is because of “the hunger among customers, employees and all of us to engage with companies on more than just dollars-and-cents terms. In a world that is being shaped by the relentless advance of technology what stand out are acts of compassion and connection that reminds us what it means to be human.” It reminded Taylor of a story that Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos told at a Princeton University convocation in which his grandmother chastised him by reminding him, “it’s harder to be kind than clever.”  Our business world focuses so much on being clever.

Annie McKee, and Richard Boyatzis, in their book, Resonant Leadership, argue “Research shows that positive emotions such as compassion have a decidedly constructive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health and personal relationships.”

In his book, It Worked For Me, Colin Powell, the former U.S. Joint Military Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, writes about an experience he had as a child in which his church welcomed an elderly priest in distress to become part of the community, and the experience of kindness that stayed with him. He says that kindness is not just about being nice, it is about recognizing another human being who deserves care and respect. Powell once told a senior staff meeting, “You can never err by treating everyone in the building with respect, thoughtfulness and a kind word.”  Powell says that being kind doesn’t mean being soft or a pushover.

As Peter Frost writes in this book, Toxic Emotions at Work, “all leaders create pain. It goes with the territory…leadership is about pushing the limits…Really good leaders take steps to mitigate, minimize or mop up the pain they create.”

In my article “Why Kindness Should Be A Required Leadership Characteristic,” in the National Post, I said, “so-called “soft-skills” or traits, such as kindness and compassion in leaders have often been seen as weaknesses.” In reality they are strengths.

Kindness is not the same as likeability. Rather, kindness implies an interpersonal closeness that comes with responsibility, vulnerability and an absence of self-interest. There is more than adequate evidence now that leaders who practice kindness, and where kindness is valued at work, create workplaces that people want to work in and are also very productive.

Daniel Goleman, in is book Destructive Emotions: A Dialogue With The Dalai Lama, writes that we are influenced by the Western view that we are essentially self, but rationally have to be nice to others to get what we want and that under stress, threat or scarcity we drop compassion. This contrasts to the Buddhist view, which says we are essentially compassionate by nature.

Christina Boedker of the Australian School of Business conducted a research study on the link between leadership and organizational performance and collected data from more than 5600 people in 77 organizations. She concluded that the ability of leaders to spend more time and effort developing and recognizing people, welcoming feedback, and fostering co-operation among staff were critical to success. Moreover, out of all the various elements in a business, the ability of a leader to be compassionate, “to understand people’s motivators, hopes and difficulties and to create the right support mechanism to allow people to be as good as they can be,” had the greatest correlation with profitability and productivity, Boedker concluded. A surprising finding in Boedker’s research is the finding that out of the four levels of leadership from the CEO through middle management to frontline managers, it’s the lowest level of leaders that drives a company’s profitability. Boards may want to consider that when pegging the CEOs compensation level.

Boedker’s research was consistent with that of Geoff Aigner, Director of Social Leadership Australia and on the faculty of the Australian School of Business. In his book, Leadership Beyond Good Intentions: What It Takes To Really Make a Difference, he contends that good management is ultimately an act of compassion

William Baker and Michael O’Malley, authors of Leading With Kindness argue that the practice of kindness in corporations has a positive impact on bottom line business results. They argue that a management style, which could be called transformational, that has these traits—compassion, integrity, gratitude, authenticity, humility and humor—improves employee performance and employee retention.

Stimulated by a series of meetings between the Dalai Lama and western neuroscientists and psychologists such as Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, deep brain scans were conducted on the brains of Buddhist meditators using fMRIs and EEG machines. The results showed that a “loving-kindness” meditation that focused on empathetic and compassionate feelings about oneself and others “lights up” the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with feelings of joy happiness, enthusiasm and resilience. Davidson’s research suggests that regular meditation with a focus on empathy and compassion can actually “rewire” the brain.

I came across a great post by Bill Taylor in the Harvard Business Review, in which he argues that the best recipe for our current negative times is to do something beautiful. Boston’s legendary Dan-Farber Cancer Institute, where sick kids get some of the best care in the world, is building a big new facility. The Boston Globe reported that every morning, in bitter temperatures during the winter, ironworkers showed up for work to complete the building. This amidst doom and gloom reports of the economy and layoffs and unemployment. It has become a beloved ritual at Dana-Farber: Every day, children who came to the clinic wrote their names on sheets of paper and taped them to the windows of the walkway for iron workers to see. And, every day, the iron workers painted the names onto I-beams and hoisted them into place as they added floors to the new 14-story Yawkey Center for Cancer Care. The building’s steel skeleton is now a brightly colored, seven-story monument to scores of children receiving treatment at the clinic. For the young cancer patients, who press their noses to the glass to watch new names added every day, the steel and spray-paint tribute has given them a few moments of joy and a towering symbol of hope.

Bill Taylor asks “why can’t each of us, in our daily work lives, take a small cue from those big-hearted iron workers?” They didn’t need a tax cut strategy or spending plan to give those children some hope, some optimism about the future. Taylor cites the example of Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, and the fast-growing, billion-dollar Internet retailer, who with his colleagues pride themselves on customer service. One of Zappos’ customers had tried to locate shoes for her hard to fit husband; ordered them, but before they arrived, he died. Zappos’ customer service personnel, aware of situation, sent flowers to the widow on behalf of the company A small gesture, yes, but meaningful to the widow? You bet.

Dachel Keltner, a University of California psychologist and author of Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, and a number of his fellow colleagues are building the case that humans are the successful dominant species because of our compassionate, kind, altruistic and nurturing traits. One of these studies has shown that many people are genetically predisposed to be empathetic.

“The new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin’s observations nearly 130 years ago that compassion is our strongest instinct,” argues Keltner. Jonathan Haidt, author of Righteous Mind, reflects the view of Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson and others who argue that when groups of animals compete, it’s the cohesive, cooperative, internally altruistic groups that win and pass on their genes.

Frans de Waal author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder Society. De Waal is a biologist, professor of psychology and director of the Living Link Center at Emory University. In 2007, Time magazine selected him as one of the world’s most influential people. The distinguished scientist says it is long overdue that we jettisoned our beliefs about human nature—proposed by economists and politicians—that human society is modeled on the perpetual struggle for survival that exists in nature. De Waal says this is mere projection on our part. Nature is replete with examples of cooperation and empathy.

Empathy, de Waal explains, is the social glue that holds human society together. He argues that modern psychology and neuroscience research supports the concept that “empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.” He points to the fact that many animals survive not by eliminating each other, or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing.

Given all we know about empathy in other animal species, why do we persist in seeing human existence, particularly in business, as a fight for survival, with winners and losers? De Waal calls this the “macho origin myth” which insists that the human species has been waging war on itself as millennia as a reflection of our true nature. What has been ignored is the fact that empathy has been evident during that entire time. De Waal points to a mass of examples of sacrifice, empathy, co-operation and fairness in humans and other animals’ species.

What does it take to be a kind, compassionate leader? Compassion and kindness comes from a place deep within us, and yet it seems there are too few opportunities to express it in the workplace and even fewer opportunities for leaders to demonstrate kindness and compassion.

Kind and compassionate leaders:

  1. Communicate openly and transparently with their employees and customers;
  2. Are flexible and adaptable, willing to set aside rules, regulations and traditions for the greater good;
  3. Express their emotions freely and openly;
  4. Lead by example, rather than by direction;
  5. Remove or decrease judgment and criticism of others as a motivational strategy.
  6. Manage their emotions productively and positively;
  7. Are mindful to the effect their words and actions have on others.

 What does the practice of kindness and compassion do for organizations? It:

  • Increases people’s capacity for empathy and compassion;
  • Promotes positive relationships;
  • Decreases the prevalence of toxic viral negative emotions and behavior;
  • Increases optimism and hope;
  • Builds resilience and energy levels;
  • Counteracts the negative effects of judgment and bias.

Given all we know about the need for kind, compassionate and empathetic leaders, and the apparently increasing toxic workplace, isn’t it time to value and recruit leaders that embrace and exhibit kindness and compassion?

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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