Updated: Mar 12, 2020
Curt not Short for Courteous
Bullying has been in the news over the last few weeks. Whilst I draw no conclusion on the specific case, I was jarred by one commentator lamenting the loss of bullying as a way of dealing with what he referred to as the ‘inept, the imbecilic and the perpetually frit'.
It is, thankfully, a narrowly held and extreme view but it relies on the, perhaps, more widely held and enduring myth that successful leaders are, when efficiency calls for it, no-nonsense and direct. Courtesy is a noble endeavour but when the going gets tough, the tough get curt.
But what if it is better to just be, as the Dalai Llama calls for us to be, “kind wherever possible” and as he also insists, “it is always possible”. Always.
The Price of Unkind
Certainly, the evidence shows that habitual unkindness is career suicide for executives. Two behavioural scientists, Morgan McCall and Michael Lombardo, studied Fortune 500 companies, interviewing those involved in hire and fire decisions. They concluded that the number one reason for executive failure was insensitivity to others and anabrasive, intimidating, bullying style. Furthermore, it isn’t until we reach reason number five on that list that business performance is mentioned at all. The top four reasons for an executive's downfalls were all about attitude. It would seem that being aloof is more harmful than poor strategic thinking and appearing arrogant ranked more likely to lead to being shown the door than poor delegation.
The Karma of Kind v Commanding
Whilst we instinctively place a premium on authority and expertise, we actually make the critical decisions based on manner. This was also found to be the case with authority figures more broadly. In Malcolm Gladwell’s second book, Blink, a research project conducted by psychologist Nalini Ambady discovered that the most significant predictor of a surgeon being sued for medical malpractice had nothing to do with their credentials, rather it was their bedside manner. Conversations between surgeons and their patients were recorded and then filtered for content so that only intonation, pitch and rhythm remained. Those surgeons that were judged to have a dominant tone tended to be in the group that were sued more often whilst surgeons who did not get sued used a tone of voice that showed concern and respect.
You are not Elon Musk (unless of course you are)
Our model of exceptional leadership is built around Jobs, Bezos, Musk and a handful of other who are portrayed in the media as driven, uncompromising and tough. Apple's former chief reputedly once threw an iPod prototype into a fish tank to demonstrate to the design team that those bubbles meant that there were still precious millimetres of space to design out. Funny from a distance but, I imagine, devastating to the engineers in that room.
However, we don’t really know to what extent some leaders have been successful in spite of rather than because of themselves. And perhaps these exceptional leaders are exceptions rather than the rule. Certainly, in his seminal book Good To Great, Jim Collins concluded that one of the most common traits in CEOs of companies with superior market performance was humility. Another study of 105 technology businesses published in the Journal of Management also revealed that humility in CEOs led to higher performance, particularly in their immediate leadership team. Routinely demonstrating humility is statistically more likely to lead to success for you and those around you then cosplaying Elon Musk.
The Cost to Performance
What worked for Machiavelli in the 16th century does not work in the 21st. Being rude and abrupt objectively erodes rather than increases organisational performance. In her book Mastering Civility, Christine Porath and her colleagues conducted an experiment to demonstrate the impact of being exposed to discourtesy. Half of the participants received an exercise that contained words that would evoke rudeness, the other half contained neutral words. They were then given math problems. Those who had been primed with uncivil words recalled 17% less, performed 86% worse on verbal tasks and made 43% more mathematical error. Being preoccupied with incivility, Porath concludes, causes oversight and mistakes. The experiment also suggests that rudeness doesn’t just impact the individual being subjected to it but all those being exposed to it. Incivility impacts the performance of everyone on the team.
Visionary, Passionate, Kind
There is no doubting the transformative nature of uncompromising, passionate and visionary leadership. None of that though, prevents treating those around us with respect. Writer and comedian Tim Mincin makes important decisions about who he works with based largely on how they treat the wait staff when he lunches with potential collaborators. The final words should come from Christine Porath. The choice for us as leaders and as colleagues is either to be someone who makes people feel disregarded or excluded or to be someone who makes people feel respected, valued, appreciated and heard.
The choice is to hold people down or to lift them up. Who do you want to be?
Porath, Christine Lynne. Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. First Edition. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2016. Print.
Collins, James C. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't. New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001. Print.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking. New York : Little, Brown And Co., 2005. Print.
Hyman, J., 2020. Why Humble Leaders Make The Best Leaders. [online] Forbes. Available at: <https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffhyman/2018/10/31/humility/> [Accessed 11 March 2020].
Rework.withgoogle.com. 2020. Re:Work - The Five Keys To A Successful Google Team. [online] Available at: <https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/> [Accessed 11 March 2020].
Morgan McCall, correspondence with author, June 18, 2015; and M. W. McCall Jr. and M.M. Lombardo, “What makes a top executive?”, Psychology Today, 2 (1983): 26-31