During a late-night TV binge, I landed on Hell’s Kitchen. Watching celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay spit out fiery insults at his apprentice chefs—a tactic he justified as helping them to improve their skills in the kitchen—I laughed at the absurdity of his comments.
Then I was struck by a terrifying thought. Is this really how some bosses motivate their staff? Ramsay’s tactics certainly make for entertaining television, but here in the real world, there’s mounting evidence to show the tough-boss approach is not the way to achieve results.
With more research showing the negative impact of stress in the workplace—such as bringing down employee morale; causing physical health issues, including high blood pressure and lower immune function; and resulting in high employee turnover—a shift away from the carrot-stick approach of the past and toward a culture of kindness may be what’s needed to succeed.
Emma Seppala, associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, says compassionate workplaces are not only good for employees' mental and physical health, but for a company’s bottom line.
Here are some of the benefits of a compassionate workplace:
People are more productive and creative when they have more positive emotions. One Gallup study by researcher James Harter found sales and profits could be predicted by employees’ feelings about the organization. While negative feelings toward one’s job or company resulted in decreased sales, positive feelings generated the opposite effect.
People who experience positive emotions at work have lower heart rates and blood pressure and stronger immune systems. The opposite is also true.
"A lack of bonding with the workplace will increase your blood pressure and your psychological distress," says Seppala.
A compassionate, supportive environment builds higher-quality relationships with coworkers and with clients. When you’re in a positive mood at work, you’re more willing to help out your peers and are nicer to clients. This results in a more positive customer experience, and generates greater customer loyalty.
While some leaders avoid showing their kind and compassionate side for fear of appearing soft, Seppala says leaders who adopt draconian management styles have less loyal followings than those who show their soft side.
"When we have a leader that is giving and is not working out of direct self-interest but is selfless, their followers are more likely to be more loyal and more committed," says Seppala, citing Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as examples of compassionate leaders who have inspired millions of loyal followers.
The importance of a positive relationship between employees and leaders was highlighted by a 2012 study that showed of those who reported not loving their job, 65% said a better boss would make them happier, while only 35% said a pay raise would do the same.
Seppala argues the creation of a compassionate work environment begins with leaders. When leaders act in a self-sacrificing, service-oriented way, she explains, employees are more likely to be helpful and friendly to each other; creating a chain reaction of kindness.