InsightsPOSTED May 25, 2015

Kindness: Not a dying virtue

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An article I recently came across in the Harvard Business Review brought back the age-old debate about whether it is better to be a “nice” leader to get your colleagues to like you, or be tough as nails to inspire respect and hard work.

This is something I have pondered right through my career to-date – as I am sure many have, especially in the service sector.

When I look back at my biggest career highs, they are intrinsically linked to the teams I worked with – and more specifically, the comradery and team spirit developed during the campaign. I was lucky to have a few great colleagues early in my career.

With time, they became good friends and some even returned as colleagues a few years down the road.

Research has also shown that leaders who project warmth – even before establishing their competence – are more effective than those who lead with their toughness and skill.


One reason is trust. Employees feel greater trust with someone who is kind. On the flip side, before my time at APEX, I witnessed first-hand the long-lasting, negative impact that a bad leader can have on employees, especially in a small workplace.

The fine balance of on one hand being liked and respected by colleagues, but also being taken seriously as a figure of authority on the other, is tougher to achieve than one might think.

One of my favourite books about this much-debated topic is by Adam Grant, Wharton’s top-rated teacher, who published Give and Take, a New York Times bestseller in 2013.

In his book, Grant introduces the idea of givers, who contribute to others without seeking anything in return; and takers, who try to get other people to serve their ends while carefully guarding their own expertise and time.

His theory is that nice managers can help an organization thrive, as long as they use the right strategies that prevent others from taking advantage of them – by distinguishing generosity from three other attributes—timidity, availability, and empathy.

Timidity is a trait that often plagues givers. The opposite of assertiveness, the goal of acting in others’ interests can make it difficult for a giver to assert one’s own.

A key trait of a successful giver is the ability to define their availability to help. Instead of accommodating every request for help, givers need to set boundaries. The more an employee becomes known for offering specific kinds of help, the less likely people are to pile on miscellaneous requests.

Over time the questions directed toward that employee will become more aligned with his or her expertise and enjoyment, making giving more sustainable.

While empathy is a powerful trait, it can sometimes be a trap for givers. When people feel empathy, they’re willing to put others’ needs ahead of their own. Rather than empathizing, or attempting to imagine what others are feeling, when givers are directed to take perspective, and imagine what others were thinking and where their interests lie.

The reality is that for most us in the agency business, we spend an equal amount of time (if not more) with our colleagues than our own family and friends, so it’s important that we feel valued and appreciated while we are at work.

And each of us has a role to play in this – if for no other reason than the selfish ROI rationale: the result of kind, collaborative leadership is high morale, good employee retention, and sustainable long-term success.

Real-life statistics further corroborate this theory: it literally pays to be nice.

Research shows that companies on Fortune magazine’s annual list of the “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” between 1998 and 2005 returned 14 per cent per year, compared to 6 per cent a year for the overall market.

Zappos took this a step further, by offering new employees who complete two weeks of training $1,500 to quit if they don’t think they’ll love working there. Few take it. Now that’s putting your money where your mouth is, and a great example to live by.

Rohini Mukherji is an account director at APEX. What do you think never goes out of style? Let us know here or on Twitter

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