It Pays to be Kind

Two business men shaking hands at international business meeting.
Two business men shaking hands at international business meeting.

If you want to know how rude and thoughtless people can be these days, just look at who doesn't participate on Twitter. Many well-known columnists simply don't engage there because social media has become a go-to way to vent anger and opposition and ad hominem slurs. (On the other hand, you can also see how other thought leaders have risen above all that and are doing well on social media.) Yet the level of cruelty in the comment section of posts and articles, and across social media, shows how our superficial technological interconnection has made it feel safe to be "a troll," someone who lobs verbal grenades over a firewall anonymously and without personal risk.

The lesson: people can be instinctively mean. As I argued in The Constant Choice, it's a default setting in our DNA that takes effort to overcome: daily, constant choices in favor of kindness. You can opt out of angry conversations on the Internet, but not at work. When this kind of demeanor infects the workplace, there are huge consequences. A fantastic Op-Ed piece in the New York Times recently offers scientific numbers on how workplace incivility can destroy people. Bosses who are cruel and rude and cold to their workers are slowly eroding their health and productivity. Extensive studies cited in the article confirm what I've always believed: effective leaders treat their subordinates with respect, kindness and encouragement. They don't yell. They hold people accountable with a minimum of criticism. If they have to fire or demote, they do it with compassion. The studies show that something as simple as a smile and hello can dramatically improve a worker's opinion of his or her boss. A harsher culture slowly eats away at its own resources: the creativity of its workers. Christine Porath, author of The Cost of Bad Behavior, writes:

My studies with Amir Erez, a management professor at the University of Florida, show that people working in an environment characterized by incivility miss information that is right in front of them. They are no longer able to process it as well or as efficiently as they would otherwise. In one study, the experimenter belittled the peer group of the participants, who then performed 33 percent worse on anagram word puzzles and came up with 39 percent fewer creative ideas during a brainstorming task focused on how they might use a brick.

This isn't a matter of being hypersensitive about feelings. It isn't a warm-and-fuzzy softening of our culture--the truth of this is embedded in human psychology. As a species we were intensely social and dependent on how others regard us. Being ignored or insulted or threatened can stunt the brain. Early in life, a disruptive and stress-filled environment can hinder a baby's ability to learn and lower its intelligence. Studies in the article show that, in a hospital setting, cruelty between workers and between superiors and subordinates, can lead to mistakes that kill patients.

During my career, at certain times, I found myself the brunt of this kind of animosity--and it undermined my confidence and eagerness to do a good job. I soldiered through it, but I would have been even more effective, and much happier in my work, if my boss had treated me firmly but with kindness. Why is this so crucial right now?

We've entered a surplus economy: in a sense we have turned a corner. In nearly every field of endeavor we have too much of a good thing. Technology, the Internet, and international trade have flattened all the old hierarchies so that if you don't like one supplier you can easily find three or four more who can sell you a product or service of equal quality. Customer loyalty has become the prime driver of success. Happy, motivated, and creative workers are the best way to win and keep loyal customers: a floor worker who smiles and leads me to the shelf I need will keep me coming back for more. Multiply that throughout a company, in all employee and customer interactions, and you are creating a business that's irresistible to buyers.

Kindness and respect are infectious. People instinctively pay it forward. Treat one worker with sympathy and compassion, and he or she will treat five other co-workers the same way. Eventually that attractive energy ripples out to customers. If you make someone feel as if they actually matter to you, and you care about them enough to want them to do a good job, they will surpass your expectations. And they will want to treat the customer in exactly the same way. And that's the surest way to succeed now.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.