Want to improve your leadership effectiveness, make the world a better place, and make yourself and others feel better in the process? It’s actually possible and it’s surprisingly simple. There’s no magic (but a little neurochemistry) involved.
The very short answer has almost nothing to do with what you’ve probably been told about leadership, but everything to do with being a “better” person. And the beauty of this life and leadership hack is that it is free and probably easier than anything else you’ll attempt on any given day. Although it is generally more effective if it is authentic and comes from a place of altruism, that is actually not necessary. It is possible to “fake it ’til you make it” and still get significant benefit in the interim. So, what is this mysterious and powerful strategy? Just be a kind and thankful person. Really. And the identified behaviors themselves are incredibly simple. They include things like: Smiling, saying hello, listening actively, offering a gentle, platonic touch, saying thank you (and explaining why you’re thankful), telling people that you appreciate them and their efforts, and being generous among others. And, no, this is not just squishy, “let’s all be nice” stuff. It is supported by a compelling body of neuroscience and business research. Read on for the longer explanation.
Those of you who regularly read my articles on leadership know that I often speak to topics that are not common in traditional discussions, but that turn out to be central to effective leadership, while also helping us to create balance and address the human side of organizations. I have referenced everything from the Dalai Lama to Harvard Business Review published research, as well as my own thirty years of experience, and it is becoming abundantly clear that much of how we used to think about leadership is fading in both relevancy and effectiveness. Why is this?
On one hand, the human components of leadership have always been critical, but they’ve simply been ignored because they didn’t fit into the technical and mechanistic bias of traditional management theory, which is historically based on methodology for efficiently controlling human behavior and resources relative to work tasks. Possibly more importantly of late, however, is that the complexity of typical organizational environments and the depth and breadth of daily pressures faced by the people inside those organizations, can no longer be effectively addressed with traditional management and leadership practices.
In a recent article, I noted compelling research that shows how unlikely it is for a leader to be rated low in terms of “likability,” but rated highly in terms of leadership effectiveness. In fact, you have about a 1 in a thousand chance of that being true! Many characteristics have been ascribed to leadership over the last century of research and training, but “likability” has not been visible among them. It’s not just important for leadership effectiveness to be likable at some minimal level, however. At least as importantly, the behaviors that are associated with likability are also associated with interactions and experiences that support positive emotions and build resilience in us as humans—and this is the key to the focus of this article. Leaders who express positive emotion in the form of kindness and gratitude, for example, actually affect their own neurochemistry and the neurochemistry of those they interact with in powerfully positive ways. Not only that, but even people who witness acts of kindness experience similar benefits. The research shows that acts of kindness and generosity actually increase levels of three key neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, that provide a sense of well being and human bonding, while decreasing stress and anxiety, and at the same time activating centers of the brain related to pro-social behavior—in other words, the gift keeps on giving.
An extension of this phenomenon is what happens when we, as leaders, make people feel valued and appreciated. Research conducted by the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, found that when we recognize employees for achievements, their productivity and performance increases for a period of time by about 23%. But when we make them feel valued and appreciated, their performance increases by 43%!
The opposite dynamic is also powerfully true. Research at Georgetown University on incivility vs. kindness in the workplace found that 66% of workers report decreasing their work effort after an instance of incivility and 12% actually quit outright. There are outlier managers who are uncivil and successful—for a while—but research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership found that bosses who are jerks eventually self-destruct and fall from their pedestals, usually because in a moment of weakness or need, they are not supported by others. The same research found that the single most important characteristic employees want in a boss is for him or her to be kind and respectful!
As noted, the great thing about this life and leadership hack is that it is free and probably easier than any other strategy for improving your leadership effectiveness and making your self (and others) feel better. And while it might be preferable morally if we pursue kindness, generosity, and gratitude from a place of altruism rather than pragmatism, both motivations will actually achieve similar results.
So, if you want to be a more effective leader, make the world a better place, and make yourself and others feel better in the bargain, just be a nicer person! Really. There is zero downside and almost certainly improved outcomes for both your personal and professional lives.