One of the more puzzling aspects of leadership is the sometimes negative impact of personal kindness – more negative, if taken too far, than a certain level of ruthlessness. Leaders who pay excessive attention to the immediate and personal welfare of individuals don’t always reap the benefits you would expect. This is paradoxical and unsettling for those of us who believe that humanity and decency are fundamental components of leadership.
There are two reasons. The first is when it becomes a barrier to the hard decisions that drive long term welfare by ensuring the success of the organisation. The second is that it generates a sense of injustice. Leaders who are kind in this way tend to understand the personal circumstances of their colleagues and make allowances for them. If someone is having a hard time at home, they’ll lighten their load at work, for example. If someone fails at a task, they’ll look for the fault in their circumstances rather than their application.
Now, to an extent, this is simple decency. No one but a monster avoids all intimacy or connection. But it can go too far. Without knowing those personal circumstances, the rest of the organisation sees only inconsistency or the tolerance of failure. Rules and principles are apparently broken for some people but not for others. As you are more likely to understand and sympathise with the personal circumstances of people you are close to, or who are like you, this can also all too easily look like favouritism.
How do you square this with being a decent human being? You should care about the welfare of your team – not because it raises morale or productivity but because it is the right thing to do. There is not much point in making the world a better place if you are busy turning your little corner of it into a hellhole.
Three steps may help.
Firstly, maintain a little distance. You can be warm, you can take an interest, but there is a line. You are their manager, not their mate.
Secondly, focus on the collective welfare. Design your rules and procedures and principles with humanity built in, so that you don’t have to make exceptions. Have a decent policy on compassionate leave, for example, and a genuine performance improvement plan. Build a level of flexibility into your working practices so people can make sensible decisions to balance their priorities. Pay everyone a decent wage, so you don’t have to make exceptions for bad luck. Then apply these policies evenly.
Thirdly, maybe reframe what you consider to be kindness and your concept of welfare. Think bigger. What seems kind in the moment can be cruel in the longer term. Indeed, is it kindness at all, or the simple avoidance of strife? Avoiding the truth about a difficult piece of feedback may make for a more jolly meeting, but is it really kind to allow that person to continue to underperform, to deny them a chance to improve which may then result in harsher consequences down the line? And how kind is it to the people who work with you to allow your organisation to stagnate or fail?
It is not ruthlessness that people really want in leaders but fairness. And this demands a certain objectivity. They want hard work rewarded and incompetence addressed. They want the rules applied to everyone. They want sacrifices to be shared as well as gains. This is not a license to throw your most vulnerable on the scrap heap at the first sign of a downturn – but it is a license to make difficult decisions that affect the whole organisation in fair and consistent ways.
Let’s be clear, people hate bullying and victimisation as much as favouritism and weakness. An objective fairness and consistency is the right balance. Design your organisation with humanity built it in, so that you don’t have to make exceptions.