Can Being Kind Make You a Better Boss?

Kindness works at work

Posted Jul 01, 2018

Can being kind make you a better boss?

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Source: Bigstock

The answer is unequivocally “yes.” That is, unless your goal is to increase the mistakes made by your employees or to lower their engagement. Data abounds to show that kindness works at work, and I am here to tell you how.

Did you know that emotions are contagious? They flow from the most powerful person in the room, as demonstrated by Elaine Hatfield, PhD at the University of Hawaii.  So, if you are the boss, that’s probably you! If you want a productive and happy workplace, then you must create it.

Kind bosses have been shown to increase morale, decrease absenteeism and retain employees longer. Kind bosses may even prolong the lives of their employees by decreasing their stress levels which improves cardiovascular health.

But, for a moment, let’s ponder the opposite, and think about the times people have been unkind to you. When some antsy driver honks at you and makes obscene hand gestures, do you think you suddenly become a better driver? Or, are you like the rest of humanity who becomes less focused when angry? Negative emotions often produce negative results, which is hardly the goal for anyone in business.

Human brains (as well as the brains of other primates) have something called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons do exactly what their name implies, and they go a long way to explaining much of human behavior. You see a commercial for food, and your mirror neurons trigger hunger. You see someone injured, and your mirror neurons trigger empathy.

Someone who bursts into the room and says, “Happy Monday, everyone!” will see smiles. Alternatively, if you are in a dour and crabby mood, you’ll bring others down with you. Understanding how your brain works and how you are impacting others, explains the positive impact of kind bosses as well as so many other behaviors.  Mirror neurons fire both when a person acts and when a person observes an action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. 

These neurons could help explain how and why we "read" other people's minds and feel empathy for them. Scientist discovered these neurons in the 1990s when they had monkey’s brains wired up to see what portion was firing. When the scientist took a snack break, they were quite surprised to see the tongue portion of the monkey’s brain firing. Monkey brain see, monkey brain do.

So if you want to create a kind workplace, it’s just that simple. Be kind. Say kind things. Do kind acts.   

And being kind doesn’t mean you are a pushover. To quote my esteemed colleague, David Loewenstein, PhD, “I am a marshmallow on the outside with a backbone of steel.”  So treat your employees with kindness, but at the same time let them know you have high expectations and will not tolerate less. As, a leader, you must have that backbone.  It should be composed of integrity, honesty, and a clear vision for your company.

And since so many push back on kindness in business, let me clarify even further. Being kind can absolutely involve saying or doing things that some may misinterpret as unkind, at least in the short term. Too often, the “nice” people in business fail to have the difficult conversations with employees exhibiting problematic behavior. There is no kindness in letting someone continue to fail. Kindness, at its core, is about improving the lives of others. As such, sometimes kindness looks at the big picture, and doesn’t flinch when something needs to be done or said.

Here’s a perfect example of firm kindness that comes from a friend of mine. Recently, my friend was with his autistic son at nearby park. This park is fully ADA accessible and even has sensory equipment for those on the autism spectrum. When he arrived, he noticed a group of kids waiting for their turn on a platform swing, and he also noticed a bunch of adults mulling about whispering to each other and pointing toward the swing. When he got in full view, he noticed an adult woman on the swing just kicking back with her smartphone. He immediately walked over, and with a firm voice said, “Excuse me, but everything here is for the kids, not us adults. We would like you to get up now, because there are a lot of kids waiting to use this swing.”

The woman was not happy, but she got up. Immediately, the other parents in the park came up to my friend to thank him for dealing with the rude woman. My friend made an astute observation: “Everybody at the park was so caught up in being nice that they totally forgot to be kind. By being nice to the rude woman, they were being unkind to all the kids at the park.” This woman was taking from the kids, and my friend was kind enough to give it back to the kids.

Adam Grant, PhD at the Wharton School of business in his groundbreaking book called Give and Take shows how companies can win across of many metrics by hiring and supporting more employees who are givers (as opposed to takers). Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy and her research partners have also shown that leaders who project warmth – even before establishing their competence – are more effective than those who lead with their toughness and skill. Jonathan Haidt at New York University Stern School of Business shows in his research that when leaders are self-sacrificing, their employees experience being moved and inspired. As a consequence, the employees feel more loyal and committed and are more likely to go out of their way to be helpful and friendly to other employees. Research on “paying it forward” shows that when you work with people who help you, in turn you will be more likely to help others (and not necessarily just those who helped you).

Kim Cameron and Emma Seppela, PhD recommend the following to improve the workplace:

  • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends.
  • Providing support for one another, including kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
  • Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes.
  • Inspiring one another at work.
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of work.
  • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust and integrity.

Quite a lot of research has been done on animals with social hierarchies, such as chimps and other primates. It appears that the same rules that determine the most effective human leaders match up with what works for other primates in the wild. For example, the most successful chimp leaders are not the most aggressive ones, nor are the most successful ones passive and "nice,". On the contrary, the most successful chimp leaders are the ones who take an interest in the wellbeing of other chimps AND hold other chimps accountable. Tyrannical chimp leaders don’t last very long; when the leader is aggressive, two slightly smaller/weaker chimps will eventually gang up up the tyrant and take over.

As for us humans, we’re not all too different from our primate cousins. If you chew an employee out for a mistake, the ‘chewing out’ causes the recipient’s brain to secrete cortisol. This raises blood pressure and pulse considerable. The end result is that the employee is now more likely to make mistakes.

What does kindness look like for a leader?

  • Praises good work (but also makes sure everyone knows what the standards and expectations are)
  • Pays attention to team morale (but makes sure to hold individuals accountable)
  • Focuses more on solving problems than on who/what to blame (but doesn’t avoid the ‘difficult conversations’ when necessary)

In the end, this is just a reminder to not confuse or conflate being nice with being kind. While they often align, kindness is not always nice, nor is being nice always kind. Perhaps a good question to ask is, “Did I just help or hurt the goals of the business by what I just said or did?” The answers are not always obvious, but if being a leader was easy, anybody could do it.

Kindness works.