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A counterintuitive approach to business success? Being kind

Oftentimes, new managers equate successful leadership with the image of an uncooperative and tough boss.

A counterintuitive approach to business success? Being kind
[Photo: Ester Marie Doysabas/Unsplash]
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Kindness is not something that we tend to associate with getting ahead at work or business success. We all know the tired phrase, “nice guys finish last.” The association of success with ruthlessness means that for those who achieve massive success and wealth, many tend to assume that one doesn’t achieve that by “playing nice.” Many assume these individuals must have done something nefarious in their career that allowed them to get to where they are.

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In the corporate world, “kindness” is generally not a prized soft skill. The perception of success is often confirmed by examples of authoritarian leadership in the workplace. We see successful and top-ranking leaders who got to where they are through office politics, stepping over competition, blaming their mistakes on others, and taking credit for others’ ideas. In other words, they are those who shout the loudest.

This idea of leadership is troublesome, since it stops other potential leaders, who don’t wish to adopt this behavior, from rising to the top.

I can speak from personal experience. Unfortunately, when I moved from the corporate world to founding start-ups, I thought that this type of a leader was the best person to lead a growing team: someone who told people what to do (because they knew best), someone that shouted, when expectations weren’t met, someone who was uncooperative and aggressive, and someone who pushed and hustled.

My perception was that the most self-confident and difficult people achieved things. It took near burnout, twice, for me to realize there are alternative—and stronger—ways to lead. Moreover, it was exhausting trying to control everything and lead in a way that I thought I should.

It might be counterintuitive to associate kindness with good business sense (unless we have experienced it ourselves and seen the benefits), but here are three reasons why it is a good idea.

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Doing the right thing is good for business

As an employee, are you going to be happier in a company that you feel is empathetic? The answer is probably yes. Happiness may not be a financial measure, but there is evidence to suggest that happier employees are more engaged and productive. And this does have an impact on the bottom line.

In Jim Stengel’s book, Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit and the World’s Greatest Companies, the author tracked 50 companies that valued their employees and had purpose-driven programs, strategies, missions, and go-to market tactics. He tracked the stock price performance of these companies over a ten-year period, and these companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 400%.

A culture of kindness enables innovation

Innovation is key to longevity in business, because it allows us to pivot quickly and foresee future trends. However, employees who are browbeaten by leadership, and living in fear of making errors, or losing their job, create a culture of people in constant survival mode. They may work long hours, to show to managers they are present, but these conditions are not where anyone’s highest productivity or best work stems.

Creativity thrives on the spontaneous, the unexpected, and the freedom to fail. Structure, organization and process quash the creative spark. Unless you put a framework in place, to encourage your employees to unleash their creative ideas, and a process to move forward with the great ideas, innovating will be challenging. Our brains only want to be creative when they’re in safe spaces.

So, to foster innovation, leaders need to signal to employees that innovation is what is expected and rewarded, and that trial and error is an acceptable part of that. Empathy and support to help employees learn from their mistakes, rather than fear of consequences, will ultimately lead to the most inspired creative output.

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Trust and loyalty are byproducts of kindness

How can you know your employees or customers, if you never take the time to talk to them and understand what they want or need? In other words, it’s nearly impossible to fully understand another person until you’ve taken up their perspective. Communicating with kindness will encourage others to open up to you, so that you can create the type of buy-in and loyalty, that quite simply, allows the kind of inspirational leadership, which makes it a whole lot easier to galvanize others into action.

Through kindness, leaders can focus on the overlap between what we want to achieve, what our customers desire, and what our employees want. It may feel counterintuitive, but by focusing on others, we may end up getting more of what we want. Whether that is profit, a promotion, or customer loyalty.

People can feel when you really want the best for them, and they respond to that, which engenders trust.

To be clear, I’m not saying that hard decisions won’t have to be made. And at times, there are people who will take advantage of your kindness (and sometimes, we need to let these people go). To avoid this, we need to have clear boundaries and expectations—but even a small dose of kindness in the workplace goes a long way.

If we believe others are generous, we are inclined to act more generously ourselves, since kindness is often contagious. And as a leader, it’s the best way to build a team that is happy to go that extra mile.

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Sara Sabin is a coach to executive and entrepreneur leaders. She is a business owner who has started many startups of her own.