Thanks to Derek Brown of Mortensen for sending me the article from Harvard Business Review on “Why Compassion Is a Better Managerial Practice Than Toughness” (https://hbr.org/2015/05/why-compassion-is-a-better-managerial-tactic-than-toughness/?utm_source=newsletter_leadership&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=leadership010813&cm_mmc=email-_-newsletter-_-leadership-_-leadership010813&referral=00206). Interestingly, soon after Derek sent me the article, I saw in the current edition of the Atlantic an article titled “Why It Pays To Be A Jerk” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/06/why-it-pays-to-be-a-jerk/392066/). So what is the answer for people who really want to be better bosses? It isn’t an insignificant question as the truly good bosses build a brand over time and are known for who they are and how they treat people, whether well or poorly.
I find it sadly unsurprising that The Atlantic’s Tom McNichol was asked my multiple CEOs after Steve Jobs’ biography was published “Don’t you think I should be more of an asshole?” They saw that Jobs, notorious for his poor treatment of people, was a successful jerk and that they might be successful if they were Jerks. The Atlantic article cites Dutch research that shows that while people think they want nice bosses, it turns out that the traits they associate most with negative bosses are the strongest predictors for higher salaries.
The HBR article, on the other hand, encourages bosses to develop their compassionate tendencies. The author shows anecdotal evidence that subordinates who were treated with compassion when making mistakes develop intense loyalty towards their superiors. But these are anecdotes. Does the lesson of a doctor who was berated for contaminating a surgery site translate to engineers, office workers, horsemen, and analysts? The Atlantic’s article cites more research which, as you might expect, shows that the nicest bosses, and the most narcissistic bosses cluster at both ends of the success spectrum, rather than in the middle.
I think that drive to the middle is the healthiest practice a senior leader can undertake. First, you must understand that compassion and toughness are not incompatible or mutually exclusive. You can be both at the same time and I encourage all leaders to develop both traits together. You also have to realize that a single consistent approach to handling people will ultimately fail as all people and situations are different. When considering how to react to a specific situation, bosses need to take into account the gravity of the situation, the speed with which a correction must be made, the learning that can occur by not only the person who made the mistake, but also the entire organization, and the leader’s own legacy of how he or she reacts.
The same person who needs a compassionate hand on the shoulder in one situation needs a strongly worded and stern order to back away in another where their own or someone else’s safety is in jeopardy. Using the proper leadership approach based on the situation tells the organization much more about the leader and gives your people greater confidence than consistently being a jerk or pushover boss.
Ultimately, as a senior leader you have to ask yourself who you are and what you want to be. If you want a very fast rise and don’t care about people, be the jerk, but don’t be surprised if you fall suddenly and unexpectedly when it all catches up with you. If you want to be liked by everyone, that is also fine, but do not be surprised if you never reach a senior level of leadership. Your people are savvy and will know if you have balance in your life. They’ll see it in how you treat your people and manage projects. They’ll realize you probably also have balance in your personal life and will want to follow you through fire and ice.