We need strong leaders that stay close to their people

Today, we’re looking at democratic leadership and showing kindness through management. In 2014, Joe Biden wrote this memo to his staff:

To My Wonderful Staff,

I would like to take a moment and make something clear to everyone. I do not expect nor do I want any of you to miss or sacrifice important family obligations for work. Family obligations include but are not limited to family birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, any religious ceremonies, such as first communions and bar mitzvahs, graduations and times of need, such as an illness or a loss in the family. This is very important to me. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if i find out that you are working with me while missing important family responsibilities, it will disappoint me greatly. This has been an unwritten rule since my days in the Senate.

Thank you for all your hard work.

At that time, Joe Biden was the Vice President of the United States. You’d have thought he’d have more important things. More urgent things, that he needed to do before writing a similar note to his staff. But writing this was top of his list of priorities, because it was in line with his beliefs and way of working. It still is. Biden wanted to explicitly authorize personal choices made by his team. This is the man that was sworn in as a senator from a hospital room where his 2 and 3 year old children were recovering from a road accident that had already killed his wife and third child. Our souls can be so powerful, and they can influence so much through democratic leadership.

Life is complex

The world of work is talking more and more about democratic leadership and the importance of managing emotions. It’s happening even more so since the lines blurred between work and home. The complexity of our lives is increasingly visible. We’ve learned that kindness and care pay off in professional relationships too. It’s particularly evident when our bosses lead the way. Compassionate companies find their employees feel more collaborative and trusting. Compassionate companies are also perceived as bringing more value to their employees too.

But according to a recent Gallup survey in the US, only 45% of employees feel that their companies care about how they feel. Not only that: a “toxic” boss is the main reason that 60% of people hand in their notice. So how can we care for and be attentive to our employees, without minimizing efficiency and determination?

Many people hesitate to talk about their feelings at work for fear of others not knowing how to manage those emotions. In the article “Awakening Compassion in Managers“, a team of Finnish researchers found that it’s easy to confuse affective empathy (feeling what others feel, which can cause stress) with an empathetic nature (caring about how others feel). The latter means the individual knows how to keep their distance while understanding how others are feeling, without personal repercussions. But the researchers also say that in competitive working environments, people can risk being careless or exploitative, causing them to worry that compassionate behaviors may encourage others to either take advantage or offload their concerns onto them.

The art of caring

So can we train ourselves in the art of caring, even though our working culture tells us the opposite?

Harvard Business School thinks so. Perhaps mixing our work and private lives, as we have been doing in recent months, provides the perfect opportunity to do so. In “Good leadership is an act of kindness“, professors Groysberg and Seligson quote their colleague Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin. He compares democratic leadership and practising kindness to weight training:

Compassion, like physical and academic skills, appears to be something that is not fixed, but rather can be enhanced with training and practice. People can build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.

In the past, many of us saw caregiving, being attentive to others’ needs and the courage to look out for others as skills that were needed in our private spheres. But now we find ourselves “social distancing”, these essential skills are plugging increasingly visible gaps at work too. The only way to acquire and practise these skills at work is to be aware of how you’re exercising them. We have these skills already, we just need to identify them and put them into practise when interacting with our colleagues, bosses and clients. It might seem strange or tiring to begin with. Thankfully, the University of Helsinki has put together a checklist of everyday behaviors that we can look our for:

being present,
appreciating others
and being aware.

Just like Biden did, we suggest adding one more item to the list: being explicit about the things we believe and the things we are.

This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza for the Alley Oop blog. You can see the original article here.