Do Nice Bosses Win?

“A leader is supposed to look like he is in charge; that he knows what he is
doing. I don’t buy that it matters whether he is ‘compassionate’ or ‘vulnerable.’”

A participant shared this comment with me a few weeks ago during a session about the role of empathy and compassion in performance conversations. I appreciated his honesty. It revealed a belief I hear repeated often: that creating a culture of trust and being a warm, compassionate boss does not materially matter. People concede that while it is great to have, it doesn’t make or break results.

The research is clear that leader qualities such as warmth, kindness, commitment to values, trust, positive bonding at work, and fairness rank very highly as concrete attributes that draw employees to their boss. Study after study confirms that teams and companies are simply more engaged and perform better when employees trust their bosses, feel connected to their teams, and feel less stress from excessive hard line pressure.

So why, despite mounting evidence that old school command control management creates disengaged employees and increased worker stress (with it’s resultant costs), do we remain incredulous that nice bosses get better results?

Perhaps it has more to do with our cultural bias towards fear of a leader being taken advantage of. As Emma Seppala says in her article, “The Hard Data on Being a Nice Boss,” “nice bosses” can get ahead, but the specifics of what we mean by “nice” matter. A study on the effects of “agreeableness” on income found that that men who embody warmth, sympathy, kindness and cooperativeness (“agreeable”) actually make less money than men who are seen as tough negotiators (“disagreeable”).*  Since such a large percentage of the workforce, especially in management and leader roles, are men, it makes sense that we have a cultural resistance to seeing “nice” bosses as a good thing.

Men are in a double bind: if I am compassionate, open, and create strong employee engagement, I may actually make less money, so despite the knowledge that doing so will create greater happiness and results from my employees, why bother to lead that way?

The data is unambiguous:

  • Leaders who project warmth (even before they’ve demonstrated competence) do better than those who lead with toughness and skill.
  • Fairness begets good team citizens, who in turn create better results.
  • Employees’ connection to their boss strongly correlates with their performance and loyalty to their company.
  • Employees value happiness and engagement more than they value pay and perks.

Leaders at all levels and all genders can benefit from objectively considering the data of the past 30 years for business productivity, and asking how that informs their leadership style. For men, it will mean reconciling the cultural bias that disagreeableness generates rewards over connection and compassion. We need to reinforce in every business cubicle and office that while employees do want their leader to demonstrate hard skills and ability, they place their faith and optimism towards bosses who show the human abilities to connect, care, and engage.

* The same study found that while men are criticized for being too “nice” women are seen negatively for being too tough.

Jim Morris