“Play nicely with others.” We’ve all heard this charming, positive phrase. As children in the classroom, and now, as leaders in the workplace.
Every week, it seems there is some new trendy leadership euphemism, the latest industry jargon meant to convey — “Actually, business IS personal so ‘be nice’ already!”
And this call to kindness is steeped in wisdom; backed by sound, replicated,global research that confirms without a doubt that ‘warmth’ and ‘compassion’ in the workplace are vital to creating (and sustaining) a healthy, successful, and profitable business.
Yet, many executive managers still struggle with humanizing their leadership approach.
They default to defensively protecting their own position, touting their own competence/accomplishments, and micro-managing the life out of their teams.
Are they just mean, terrible, heartless people?
No. Of course not. It’s just that old habits die hard … and industry-sanctioned mindsets die even harder.
The truth is — though we know treating our teams and fellow colleagues kindly makes good sense in theory, we’re not dumb.
We know we’re still operating in a business climate where kindness is often equated with weakness.
Is the business world shifting and evolving away from this outdated notion? Yes, absolutely.
Are we 100 percent there yet? Nope. Not quite.
And so, it makes sense to me when I see executives struggle with infusing compassionate approaches into their leadership style.
They’re cautious with fair reason.
Some executives are actually fully on board with concepts of ‘caring, personal leadership’ and are eager to implement them, but the VP, CEO or Board of Directors they directly report to are not.
(And that’s an awkward position to be in, for sure, when your leadership philosophy differs markedly from the philosophy of the top brass who decide whether or not YOU remain employed.)
So, these executives don’t actually disapprove of showing warmth in the workplace — they’re just not sure how to do so.
After all, these are usually professionals who fortified their success and reputation by being pragmatic, technically proficient, and by delivering rock-solid outcomes. Chit-chatting with employees about their feelings and other aspects of human dynamics were never part of their training.
So, I get it.
That’s why, when I coach executives struggling with the human side of leading teams, I encourage them to step into this new approach gradually.
Because you cannot fake warmth or kindness. People see through that instantly.
So, how do strong leaders ease into a more personal, caring management style without looking weak?
By doing the following:
1. They show discretion
You don’t have to coo or fawn over your team, or praise them for every little thing. Just create a fair and safe space for them to learn and grow.
One of the most impactful ways to achieve this is by showing discretion. That means, if a team member raises a white flag that they’re struggling with something, don’t throw them under the bus by announcing their issue (or gossiping about it) to other people on the team. A hard performance review, a challenging situation in their personal life, keep these matters to yourself.
One of the kindest things you can ever do is allow someone their dignity.
2. They comfort their team, but never coddle them
Caring for your team does not mean coddling or babying them. Nor, letting them off the hook.
So, don’t lower expectations. Instead, get creative about helping your team acquire the proficiency needed to reach them. Don’t shield your team from reality. But do allay unwarranted fears about external threats. And, help them manage their energy so stress doesn’t dissolve into unnecessary panic, exhaustion, or internal conflict.
Ultimately, people want to feel looked out for. So, look out for your people.
3. They make people feel important
Humans have a primal ache to feel important. We want our presence and our unique contribution to truly matter. As such, no one appreciates a boss who dismisses them or blows them off.
One of the most powerful and simple ways you can help your team feel valued and important is by giving them your full attention.
If an employee needs to talk to you, put down your phone, turn away from your computer screen and actually listen. Focus, and try to assess what’s really going on with them. Don’t leap in right away to fix their problems. Often they just need their leader (a.k.a. you!) to listen and ask supportive questions. This helps them clarify their thoughts about the situation so they can find a solution on their own.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the busy rush of the workday, but I promise you, this focused time is equally important to any of the other “tasks” you do.
4. They give honest feedback, kindly
So, how do you balance warmth in the workplace with delivering honest feedback that’s difficult to hear?
Simple, by taking a few moments before delivering that feedback to acknowledge the other person’s perspective. Toward that effort, I’m a fan of Daniel Dennet’s synthesis of Anatol Rapoport’s legendary rules for composing a successful critical commentary:
- “You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, ‘Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.”
Is such an approach easy? No. Is it fair and kind? Most certainly.
5. They remember that consistency is half the battle
One of the best ways to reduce your frustration over the amount of effort compassionate leadership requires is to STOP expecting it to ever take less effort.
You cannot put your relationships on autopilot and expect them to thrive … not in your personal life (see the staggering divorce rate) and not in your professional life.
Yes, being consistently ‘nice’ can feel like a pain. Especially on days when you feel under the gun, when your own energy stores are depleted, or when a team member or colleague’s comment or action genuinely pisses you off.
But those are the moments when trust is either forged or broken. Anyone can convey warmth in a single interaction … but authentic trust is built through consistent interaction. If you’re considerate only when it’s easy, yet resort to strong-arming others when things get hard, your positive effort is wasted.
‘Being nice’ in the workplace is challenging, but worth it.
Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat this — Cultivating trust by showing warmth and kindness to your team and colleagues is one of the most vital skills to acquire as a leader in the modern business age. It is essential to building healthy, vibrant, and sustainable companies.
The future of your career hinges on you getting better at this.
But, you don’t have to magically master this approach overnight. Work at it consistently, expand into it authentically.
As writer and business management leader Patrick Lencioni once said — “The truth is, being the leader of a healthy organization is just plain hard. But in the end, it is undeniably worth it.”
Author’s Note: I want to sincerely thank David Chow, an amazing coach and generous colleague, who first introduced me to the fascinating “Growth-Competence Model” outlined in the research of Amy Cuddy, Susan Fiske and Peter Glick.
This article originally published on LinkedIn.