In business, as in life, your attitude goes a long way towards accomplishing your goals. Too often I’ve run into people on their way up who’ve gotten the idea in their heads that being overly aggressive, pushy, or even downright rude is the way to succeed in business. It may signal ambition, or a desire to be in control, but ultimately this type of attitude is a turnoff and the easiest way for me to decide that I don’t want to work with you.
When I talk to my colleagues who have found long-term success, I see the opposite kind of behavior. Those who are fully confident in their status and abilities (no matter what level of the organization they occupy), are open to suggestions, evenhanded in their criticism, and place good work above petty ego concerns. These are the people I want to be around in my everyday work, and I’m not alone in feeling that way. When you are accommodating, understanding, and compassionate, you’re putting yourself and your company in the best position to succeed.
Providing compassionate support to those around you is not a novel idea generally speaking, but there’s compelling evidence that it’s not only good for morale, but it’s good for business too. Researchers at the Association for Psychological Science (APS) found that organizations whose employees felt valued saw a benefit to their bottom line. Those feelings—of being trusted and valued—come directly from managerial actions. When managers fail to listen, they spur failure in plenty of other ways, too.
When you’re an overbearing boss, you’re not only hurting morale, your company is losing money. One reason for this, I’ve noticed, is that an uncomfortable office is a place where people don’t feel they can communicate freely. This can have serious consequences in any professional relationship—in fact it was a lack of open conversation that was considered the culprit when a Korean Air flight crashed in 1999 due to poor cockpit communication. A trainee copilot, afraid to contradict his captain, didn’t speak up about problems he saw, with disastrous results. Your office may be a bit more grounded, so to speak, but the fact remains that harboring a fear of speaking up can lead to major failure, whether flying a plane or snagging a big client.
Ruling by fear is not a sign of decisiveness, but insecurity. Bosses who use aggression and intimidation might appear powerful from the outside, but get to know them a little better and you’ll see what I’ve seen: fears. Of failure, of bad appearances: whatever it is that dominates their thoughts. The atmosphere they create—in which work gets done via negative reinforcement rather than empowerment—is toxic, and diminishes returns as well as morale.
The main thing to remember is this: when you’re motivating through fear, you may see results improve in the short term, but in the long run, you’ve poisoned the well for retaining your human capital. Your best employees—the ones that are the engine driving your organization—will be the first to notice a better opportunity somewhere else. I don’t have to go into why employee retention is important, but suffice it to say, those numbers suffer greatly when morale is low.
It might not come naturally to you, but taking the time to compassionately manage your workforce pays dividends. Entire companies have popped up to provide consulting for harboring talent in a thoughtful way, and more APS research has found that building empathy is not unlike building muscle: not every person starts out with it, but sooner or later every successful leader has to earn it.