Cutthroat or Kind Leaders – New Research

We’ve all observed caring and compassionate leaders who appear to escape cutthroat tactics that hardwire a cynic‘s brain. We also know that:

  • negative connections in brains are easier to slip into and harder to remove, while -
  • positive connections are harder to create and tend to leave faster. Why so?

Fear tactics or stress over-stimulate the amygdala and excite the brain’s circuitry. Threats, for instance,  increase dangerous cortisol chemicals and lower levels of serotonin, the adrenalin for well-being.

Evidence of negative connections may include behaviors that:

  • Focus on people’s flaws rather than finding the good in others. You see it in disagreements that subtly diminish or attempt to one-up an employee.
  • Criticize research parts rather than recognize parts that work well Academics tend to call meaningful “critique,” what their victims see as cutthroat criticism.
  • Exclude people who differ rather then embrace cultural differences. It may be as simple as ignoring other races at work, or as serious as denying promotions unfairly.

Have you seen leaders’ cutthroat behavior that adds toxins to a workplace? Social psychologist, Dacher Keltner spent a lifetime looking for its opposite, kindness – as it drives human brains.

Does care trump cutthroat where you work?

Evidence of positive connections include behaviors that add to meaningful lives:

  • Encourage others consistently and seek the best in peers. Leaders who support, let go of people’s flaws, advance others’ talents, and promote trust.
  • Gives resources and assistance to promote onto well-being. Leaders who practice generosity rather than fall for power, self seeking or greed.
  • Holds an invisible crown over people’s heads and wait patiently for growth. Shows the kindness that offers space for others to grow into it.

To Keltner‘s notion of hardwired “good” Dr. Howard Gardner Gardner adds:

To some extent, the choice derives from our parents, our communities, and the particular historical era and cultural group in which we are born and grow up. But in the last analysis, the choice of what to be, and how to be, is ours and ours alone.

Without doubt, each act of kindness rewires the brain for caring solutions, just as each ax lowered by cutthroats wire for further swings at the problem. It’s not always apparent at first whether a leader is kind or cutthroat. Have you ever seen one disguised as the other?

One friend and fellow leader Dave Caiazza, put it this way:

Work against the dangerous twins of jealousy and hypocrisy. They come disguised as concern, shrouded in statistics, and hidden behind a smile. When you’re good at something, there will always be someone who wants to undo you. Don’t let them.

How does kindness transform your leadership?

6 Comments

  1. The most effective leaders hold a strong sense of compassion for others. Cutthroat leaders may seem to accomplish more on the short term, but find in the long run that people abandon them.

    It’s good to see meaningful work being done to validate the efficacy of kindness and compassion in leadership!

  2. eweber says:

    Thanks Douglas, I have to agree with you that compassion is the key to caring and to kindness in any community. My question – how can we generate a deeper compassion that allows for the bottom line to be surpassed and helps leaders to build communities that prosper together? Thoughts?

  3. Wally Bock says:

    “Compassion” sounds like something everyone would sign up for, but, for me at least, it’s a very fuzzy concept. What would a leader DO to show compassion? And how is it different than caring for your people?

  4. eweber says:

    Thanks Wally, the question you tossed out here is the perfect probe to start the next leader’s meeting anywhere. The key would be to ask leaders what it would look like in each setting they enter and how it would be evident in what actions get taken that day.

    At that point, it is my prediction that the roots of “compassion” will go down for that newly created and shared vision among leaders:-) You?

  5. Kristina Thorpe says:

    Ellen,

    Aren’t we really talking about The Golden Rule and The Ten Commandments? And when one goes back to the Old Testament many of the rules were pragmatic. If you treat someone nicely, they’re more likely to do your bidding, right?

    It seems to me that loyalty and fealty to anyone, any job, any state come from feeling like one is being treated well. And there’s another term I can’t resist, doing well by doing good. I have known business people who’ve gotten very, very far using that creed.

    Yes, it’s all touchy-feely but I think with a grounding in real chemistry and hardwiring.

    Thank you for the interesting post.

  6. eweber says:

    Thanks for your wonderful insights and I couldn’t agree with you more that when we give out good tone, fine tone circles back to the entire circle. It’s less touchy feeling than once thought, however, which is how we’ve ended up with toxic workplaces where it goes missing.

    It’s actually part of our inter and intrapersonal intelligences, and it grows new neuron pathways for more, which practice:-) Agree?

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