What keeps managers from being kind to those who report directly to them? When asked they might say they were angry or hurt, felt let down or lost trust. Most managers believe it’s perfectly okay to express these feelings, but this belief does not justify being unkind. The reason why we treat people unkindly is fear. So what is the difference between expressing, say, anger and being unkind (we’ll get to the fear part later)?
Expressing Anger: “Barry, I’m really upset about the report you released. There are three significant errors [and you point out the errors]. I need to know what the process was that let this happen, and we need to figure out how to fix the content and process. Right now I need to clear my head, so let’s meet this afternoon to talk about it.”
Being Unkind: “Sara, you should know better than this. How could you have let something like that get by you? Were you half-asleep? What’s going on here? This type of slacking off does not happen on my watch!” [I left out the common expletives.]
The unkind remarks include rhetorical questions that are condescending and disdainful. If you believe that fear and punishment are motivators that enhance learning, you would consider these remarks as helpful to improve Barry’s quality of work and ensure that he doesn’t make the same mistakes again. Any many people do believe remarks such as those are motivators, but good manager/teachers know they are not. We learn best in an emotionally safe and caring environment, and there is a simple biological reason for that: When we are under stress, our stress hormones elevate, and with that elevation comes a shift to fight/flight/freeze mode. It really is that simple.
We’ve all heard leaders say something like “Well, I got my butt kicked plenty of times and look where I’ve gotten,” just as we’ve heard voices say publicly and privately how well they turned out because their parents weren’t afraid to punish them with the belt or they had a boss who berated them frequently and it just further motivated them to prove the boss wrong. Some of these voices have belonged to people who have made great achievements; some have been literal or figurative captains of industry and innovators—aren’t the achievements worth the unkindness? No. The ends do not always justify the means. It’s not good logic to conflate the tyranny of the leader with the accomplishment.
So what about fear. Most people in the workplace are afraid of getting into trouble when they have managers who aren’t good problem-solvers or teachers and expect them to know and execute properly all the time. How unrealistic. If someone is below you on the organizational chart, it is likely they do not know all that you know (though they likely know some things you don’t know!), and how will they learn if you don’t teach them. A big part of a manager’s job is to be a resource and a support. So the questions to ask are “What skills do I need to become a good resource and support to others? How can I best teach them?”
Because of the nature of an organizational chain of command, one often believes that my boss is on me and I’m on you—the old law of the jungle. But you know what, it isn’t a jungle out there, not when we find a way to behave with kindness and clarity. This does not preclude having high standards, accountability, and mental toughness. Being harsh and unkind is a sign of weakness: the higher the decibel level, the weaker the leader.
Leaders who walk the talk, ones who have clear values and standards, create a sound company culture. They make sure managers have the tools they need to help those who report to them and treat people well. There is no excuse for not treating people well and great rewards when you do. You elevate morale, loyalty, and productivity. It’s the right thing to do.