The conventional wisdom is that “Nice guys finish last”. Leo Durocher coined a version of the phrase in 1946 to criticize the Dodgers’ last-place rivals, the Giants, and to tout his own philosophy of management.
More recently, Prof. Adam Grant of Pennsylvania State University, in his 2013 book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, demonstrates that the converse proves to be true over the long term.
In two of our workshops, “Managing People” and “Employee Engagement and The Psychological Contract: The Road to Employee Satisfaction”, we have been advancing this practice for over three decades. The first step is to recognize that what you say and how you say it, and what you do and how you do it, in large part determine whether employees will be influenced by your leadership. We expand this approach to encompass a new leadership mindset, revitalizing the maxim that employees really are your most valuable asset. Your job is to believe that and validate it to your reports. If you do, you can transform working relationships and your daily work experience, as well as theirs. The question is, how do you go about doing that and remain a “nice guy”?
Our workshop requires three days, so the answer we will provide here represents only a foundation. But it is a powerful introduction to a new kind of leadership.
Aaron Feuerstein, “The Mentsch of Malden Mills”, is the paradigm for kindness in leadership. When his factory burned down, instead of taking the insurance proceeds and retiring, or moving to Mexico where his costs would be significantly lower, he continued to pay his employees and cover their medical insurance until he ran out of money. “Paradigm” may be a strong term in light of the unsustainability of Feuerstein’s beneficence, but his unprecedented gesture is what matters. He treated his employees the way they wanted and needed to be treated, a veritable manifestation of The Platinum Rule – “Treat people as they want to be treated.” This adaptation of The Golden Rule, the old-standby found in all religions and philosophies, requires communicating with the other person to ascertain what makes for that person’s dignity. It is no longer enough to treat people the way you want to be treated. Those times are long over.
But kindness? It seems anomalous in light of the long history of employment relationships, which were based on obeisance to a monarch or a feudal lord and similar hierarchical connections. It also sounds corny and old-fashioned. But kindness and sensitivity are precisely what the doctor ordered! Here’s the Rx: Clay Banks, Unsplash.com
Please don’t hug your employees. That is no longer acceptable, if it ever was. Instead, consider the exercise we conduct in our “Managing People” workshop called, “How to Make Someone Feel Like a Million Bucks”. Creative supervisors can devise novel ways to demonstrate recognition and appreciation for the little things that employees do every day. That is one way to make people feel loved.
Benevolent paternalism is a form of leadership that has the veneer of generosity but in fact relies on patronizing and manipulating staff members, rendering them underlings both in name and actuality. They detect this transparent duplicity. In contrast, kindness, filtered through a Platinum-Rule lens, is the antithesis of benevolent paternalism; it permits the leader and the employee to be partners and together determine how to shape duties and the ability to perform them to facilitate success.
It is an axiom of the workplace that the employee will resist change if she believes that it is designed merely for organizational goals, or if the reason for it remains elusive. But no one resists change if they believe it is in their own best interests. The confluence of organizational and individual goals can often be made salient, but the individual goals must be identified and respected as main concerns where they do not supplant collective ones. Accommodating those priorities where possible will substantiate where nice guys finish. You will say that this turns conventional management on its head. And that is the type of unselfishness that Carpe Diem Associates recommends for a climate where employees – and managers – thrive.
Over the course of almost four decades, Carpe Diem’s approach of having the employee’s best interest top of mind has transformed manager-employee relationships, resulting in reduced tension, significantly fewer grievances, less absenteeism and increased employee engagement in many organizations. It melds team members and nurtures a feeling that we are all in this together. It creates a trust account for those times when the organization, or the manager, cannot fulfill reasonable employee expectations. Giving candid and negative feedback is another prized way to show you have a person’s best interests in mind. Employees crave feedback of all kinds, and they can differentiate between criticism that will help them grow from the hot air that managers often spout to avoid difficult conversations and the specter of conflict. That respectful candor is how they know you are acting in their best interests. This stratagem invites their input and active participation without ceding authority to the employee.
We have identified practical skills that supervisors can adopt to influence employees to change their performance and organizational citizenship behaviors – i.e., the discretionary acts that employees choose to engage in that go over and above performance expectations. When employees opt to do that, then real progress is being made in the labor-management relationship, on a personal level. Since the supervisor is the face of the organization for most purposes, this development carries tremendous potential for organizational health.
Just last week, The New York Times reported that hundreds of men who were seeking drug rehabilitation services were instead imprisoned in Indonesia over the course of years. They performed work alongside paid workers on a plantation but were subject to torture, whipping, beatings and sexual assault. While these horrors seem remote, they evince an inclination toward tyranny in the workplace and a willingness to allow the profit motive to supersede humane treatment of employees – here, also supposed “patients”. The notion that these types of oppressive managerial actions are isolated is misleading. There are many other instances in recent reports of employers taking undue advantage of workers. Moreover, the corporate entity largely determines a person’s daily schedule, what they get paid, how they spend their time, how they dress and where they exist in the pecking order. Their right to privacy also rests in the hands of the business. On a deeper level, hundreds of studies attest to how fear pervades American workplaces. Case studies of NASA, Enron, Fox and CBS News, expose the dread that employees experienced on a daily basis. Employees are shamed, ignored, unacknowledged, overworked, unappreciated and feel like just a number. The common denominator in all of these emotions is the absence of kindness.
Why does this interest us at Carpe Diem?
Despite thousands of studies and models of leadership, most leaders are mired in stale techniques that hinge on command and control, laissez-faire or benevolent paternalism. On rare occasions, these leadership styles may work, but they represent cliched, narcissistic and arrogant choices that usually devalue individual employees; they also cannot be sustained. While no one leader can claim a record of perfection, there are role models that do not receive the recognition that they deserve. Leaders such as Warren Buffet, Lucinda Ardern of New Zealand, and Mother Teresa used an ethic of caring leadership and achieved great things. So should we all.
Please note that this does not constitute legal advice; please speak with an attorney if you desire same.