Rex Huppke | Power can go to your head, but remember this, leaders: You set the tone for the whole workplace.
In two recent columns, I’ve written about and shared your views on kindness in the workplace. (I promise I will eventually return to more important topics, like how to get revenge on your work enemy; proper etiquette for a break room doughnut stampede; and the tyranny of pants.)
But for now, I’m returning to the subject of kindness because one of the main points everyone seemed to agree on is that a culture of kindness has to be embraced, promoted and encouraged by company leaders. They set the tone.
The idealistic version of me would like to think: Well, that’s easy — powerful people just have to be nice. But then the real-life version of me came across an article on the Harvard Business Review’s website that raises questions about how likely leaders are to view kindness as a priority.
Let’s start with the bad news. David Dubois, an assistant professor at the French graduate business school INSEAD, wrote in the article that people take advantage of power in various ways.
“They’re more apt to be rude, and they’re more likely to cheat. People driving expensive cars are less likely to stop for pedestrians, for example, and in a series of lab experiments upper-class individuals tended to lie more during a negotiation and cheat to increase their chance to win a prize.
“Not only do the powerful seem to cheat more, it seems to come more naturally to them. A research project (still under review) with colleagues from Berkeley, Kellogg and Columbia revealed that participants who had been primed to feel powerful were better liars than those who had been primed to feel less powerful.”
So that’s unfortunate. Dubois also noted that power can lower people’s inhibitions, making them less likely to conform to social norms and more self-focused. Those are qualities that can help a leader be successful, but they don’t always make life wonderful for the leader’s employees.
The good news is that what Dubois calls “the negative effects of power” can be mitigated: “We do have evidence that leaders can learn ‘perspective-taking.’ In other words, they can develop the habit of asking, ‘What does the person in front of me think and want?’ or ‘If I were on the other side of the table, what would seem fair?’ or ‘Would I want this decision to appear on Page 1 of The Wall Street Journal?’ Perspective-taking can easily be primed through short exercises or developed through training.”
Via email, I asked Dubois some questions about power and kindness.
Q: I loved the idea of “perspective-taking.” If we’re focusing on kindness and on creating a positive company culture, how critical is it for leaders to gain — and maintain — that kind of perspective?
A: “Perspective-taking is one of the most important skills that leaders should harness. From a business perspective, greater perspective-taking helps leaders to anticipate what other actors in the market (competitors and collaborators) think and make better decisions. Within their company, greater perspective-taking skills help leaders understand the diversity of viewpoints and experiences that need to be integrated into the common company vision — a key factor in any business’s success.”
Q: Concerns about ethics are central in the consideration of how power can impact a person’s decisions. If powerful people come up through the ranks in cultures that promote kindness and integrity, do you think they’re more likely to carry those traits with them as they gain power in a company?
A: “In hierarchies that value kindness, leaders who emerge should indeed be kinder and behave in a more ethical manner. But it seems these kinds of environments/hierarchical structures are scant — that is, there aren’t a lot of companies that value kindness as a promotion tool.
“Google offers an interesting indirect way of valuing one’s relationship vis-a-vis others. Every year, your evaluation depends, in part, on the ratings from people you have worked with. As a result, if you have poor relational skills and have not been kind to others/interested in their growth, you’re more likely to be judged harshly.
“One of the reasons why kindness (and care in general) is not well integrated into organizational processes and leadership building comes, in part, from the fact that it is difficult to evaluate. That is, I can measure easily whether you have sold 100, 500 or 1,000 boxes of shoes; but assessing how nice you’ve been to people inside or outside the company is a much harder thing to do.”
And there’s the crux of this whole issue. Kindness isn’t particularly quantifiable. In a working world of metrics and data and evaluation forms, it’s hard to measure who’s being nice and to what degree.
So if we know the key to a culture of kindness is having leaders who embrace a behavior that can’t be measured, and we also know that power can amplify traits that run counter to that behavior, what do we do?
We go back to Dubois’ idea of perspective-taking. We encourage leaders to make a habit of asking themselves how their actions may be perceived by others or whether those actions are going to hurt others.
For those who don’t do that naturally, it has to become a reflex. There’s ample evidence that kindness pays off, whether through worker satisfaction, retention or overall productivity. So if leaders don’t want to be kind because it’s the right thing to do, they should work to be kind because it’s the smart thing to do.
Please keep sharing your thoughts on this subject. I’ll come back to it as soon as I’ve figured out how to make pants illegal.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.