Employees most productive under bosses who show kindness, compassion

BINGHAMTON, N. Y. — Feel like your employees aren’t giving it their all in the office? A daily dose of  genuine kindness and compassion may do the trick. A recent study by researchers at Binghamton University finds that simply being nice to employees and taking interest in them personally and professionally almost always leads to better productivity and improved job performance overall.

“Being benevolent is important because it can change the perception your followers have of you,” explains researcher Chou-Yu Tsai, assistant professor at Binghamton University’s School of Management, in a university release. “If you feel that your leader or boss actually cares about you, you may feel more serious about the work you do for them.”

Tsai and his team of international researchers tried to determine how the presence and lack of generally benevolent attitudes and behaviors by superiors affect the performance and productivity of their subordinates at work. The authors surveyed about 1,000 members of the Taiwanese military and nearly 200 adults working full-time in the United States. They examined three different leadership styles, defined as authoritarianism-dominant, benevolence-dominant, and classical paternalistic leadership.

Authoritarianism-dominant leaders try to assert absolute authority and control while focusing on completing tasks at all costs and not considering an employee’s wellbeing. Benevolence-dominant leadership centers on the personal and familial wellbeing of subordinates; that is, these bosses want their workers to feel supported and cared for in the office. Classical paternalistic leadership combines both leadership styles, focusing on completed tasks and their employees’ overall wellbeing.

The researchers found that the authoritarianism-dominant leadership model almost always sapped employee productivity, while benevolence-dominant bosses almost always boosted job performance. The researchers concluded that showing compassion motivates employees.

However, the researchers also found that the classical paternalistic leadership style had just as strong an effect on employee performance as benevolent-dominant leadership. That’s because this type of relationship resembles a familial model formed during childhood.

Tsai explains: “The parent and child relationship is the first leader-follower relationship that people experience. It can become a bit of a prototype of what we expect out of leadership going forward, and the paternalistic leadership style kind of resembles that of a parent.”

The authors found the results held true for both Taiwanese participants and American ones. In both cases, people who felt their bosses cared for them enjoyed greater productivity. That actually surprised them because the work cultures for the two groups are quite different.

“The consistency in the results across different cultures and different job types is fascinating. It suggests that the effectiveness of paternalistic leadership may be more broad-based than previously thought, and it may be all about how people respond to leaders and not about where they live or the type of work they do,” says Francis Yammarino, a distinguished professor in the School of Management at Binghamton.

“Subordinates and employees are not tools or machines that you can just use. They are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect,” concludes Tsai. “Make sure you are focusing on their well-being and helping them find the support they need, while also being clear about what your expectations and priorities are. This is a work-based version of ‘tough love’ often seen in parent-child relationships.”

The study was published in the journal The Leadership Quarterly.

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Ben Renner

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