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The future of leadership is kindness

Listen-up companies big and small: move over command and control, there’s a new leadership style in town.

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Prime Minister of New Zealand Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern Source: Ardern's Facebook

Serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk consistently talks about the power of kindness in business. He believes soft skills matter more than you think.

“We’ve placed over time so much emphasis on notions of assertiveness and strength that we have assumed it means you can’t have those other qualities of kindness and empathy.” – Jacinda Ardern

“Bad sells in the short term, good always wins in the end,” he says.

Now, some might say this is a naïve way of looking at the world. While kindness and goodness matters in life, it can’t get you through work, right? But the better question is “why not?”.

Why is it we value living a happy, fulfilled and loving life but at work some feel the only way to get ahead is to use power and toughness as a tool? In life, we actively remove ourselves from toxic relationships as we know it’s unhelpful so why, in the context of work, should it be any different?

In my experience the more empathetic, compassionate and genuine I am, the more I find people gravitate to the outcome we’re working towards. There is no science behind the idea that being nice, charismatic or likeable means you are more likely to be a push-over or that people won’t respect you. It’s an old-way of thinking with a lack of evidence to back-it-up.

The science however does tell us people are more likely to leave their jobs because of a lack of support or connection to their boss.

A 2019 US study revealed 57 per cent of employees quit because of their boss. Another 14 per cent have left multiple jobs because of their managers and an additional 32 per cent have seriously considered leaving because of their manager. This suggests companies could be looking in the wrong place as they search for opportunities to attract, retain and grow talent.

Human bond matters

Gallup finds year after year in its surveys of US workers that “receiving a compliment, words of recognition and praise can help individuals feel more fulfilled, boost their self-esteem, improve their self-evaluations and trigger positive emotions.” Surely this breeds productivity in teams and must be a good thing?

A well-known Google study - titled Project Aristotle - on building the perfect team proved human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else.

“The behaviours that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond,” the study found. “And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.”

Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.

Science also tells us we can retain people by having a healthy, supportive, empathetic and highly communicative environment around us - a conclusion Gallup drew from decades of data and interviews with 25 million employees. It’s common sense, now more than ever before, as companies push to sustain productivity during the pandemic and with an ongoing remote workforce.

Kindness must not be overlooked – this is what 21st century leadership looks like.

Strong and bold

The other argument worthy of demystifying is the notion an empathic, ‘soft’ leader cannot be strong and bold. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has schooled us time and time again that leaders can be both empathetic and strong.

In Leading With Empathy, Ardern emphasises her wish to lead with kindness and not being afraid to focus on, or be driven by, empathy.

“I think one of the sad things that I’ve seen in political leadership is – because we’ve placed over time so much emphasis on notions of assertiveness and strength – that we probably have assumed that it means you can’t have those other qualities of kindness and empathy,” she says.

“And yet, when you think about all the big challenges that we face in the world, that’s probably the quality we need the most. We need our leaders to be able to empathise with the circumstances of others; to empathise with the next generation that we’re making decisions on behalf of. And if we focus only on being seen to be the strongest, most powerful person in the room, then I think we lose what we’re meant to be here for.”

So how do kind leaders deal with difficult situations? With authenticity and empathy of course.

According to Jacinda: “I actually decided I didn’t necessarily want to build some tough exterior. Instead I just learned how to filter things; how to kind of take on board that criticism and listen to it when I needed to, or otherwise say, ‘Well, actually that person’s just coming from a very different perspective’, and just learn how to filter it. And so that was a really big learning curve, you know? Actually, the world doesn’t need a whole lot of massively thick-skinned politicians; they do need people who care.”

The same goes with business leaders. And it doesn’t matter if the company is big or small. Some may say it’s ok to be like that in a start-up but it doesn’t work for an enterprise because of the hard decisions and trade-offs required – again I ask “why not?” We’re all human and have needs of motivation like belonging, love, safety and esteem. Compassionate leadership is the ability to do hard things in a human way.

When, not if

In the McKinsey book CEO Excellence, which looks at how excellent CEOs align the organisation, it was noted all 67 CEOs featured in the book treated the soft stuff just like the hard stuff. They put equal rigor into how they handled topics like talent, culture and organisation design. They know this is a source of competitive advantage when they get it right, not if they do.

As leaders, we have a duty of care for the people we lead. Those of us willing to lay their ego aside can grow as leaders and become better versions of ourselves at work and in life. Modern leadership in the 21st century requires kindness which creates a healthy breeding ground for three very critical ingredients in successful teams which retain talent: effective communication, psychological safety and growth opportunities.

You have an opportunity to create a meaningful, positive and thriving environment for your people which will not only have a lasting impact on the individuals you reach but create a ripple effect of increased social connection and inclusion across the company.

Work is a big part of our lives, being happy and whole at work means I am truly living. If you can spread a bit of kindness and joy at work, then do it – the evidence tells us that performance and productivity will only increase.

The best teams are where members and leaders listen to each other and show sensitivity to feelings and needs. So come on, give it a go and make someone’s day.

Carina Parisella is Tribe Lead for the Technology Workforce at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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