When I was growing up, I remember my mum having difficulties with the head teacher in the school where she worked. He was mean and enjoyed making people feel intimidated which stifled creativity and made everyone miserable. My mother would come home stressed, depressed and wondering how she could go back to work the next day.
Sadly, there are many bosses like this in the workplace and far too many employees who are unable to reach their potential because they are held back. This means that organisations are limiting their own capacity. To survive and thrive, especially in the current climate, employees need to be given space to deliver to the best of their ability. They need to be encouraged and supported to make a full contribution and grow from their experiences. If we can achieve this, organisations will truly know success.
If I asked you what makes a good boss, you certainly wouldn’t respond with the qualities displayed by the head teacher in my story. More likely, you would say a good boss is someone who is trusting, supportive, listens to your views, believes in you, shows appreciation and so on. Which boss are you likely to go out of your way for? And therefore, which would you say is able to get the best out of people?
In his work on ‘fearless leadership’, Richard Varey explores the importance of kindness in leadership. It isn’t about the leader being brave which is what I thought at first, but about creating an environment where people feel safe. The foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is security. Individuals will not reach the lofty heights of self-actualisation if the organisation’s culture is based on blame and fear.
Varey says ‘if you are kind, people feel safe; if they feel safe, they can grow’. And actually, it’s better for everyone because kindness increases the levels of oxytocin for all involved which increases optimism and makes everyone feel physically better.
Compare this with an environment where people are scared to do anything wrong. In a culture of fear, people shut down because the stress response is triggered when they sense danger. When this happens, cortisol floods the system which creates a fight, flight or freeze response. This literally shuts down the rational mind and short term memory. In a culture of kindness, no conversation is off-limits because people feel secure and are more open to discussing whatever you need to address.
In this work, I really like the idea of ‘emotional collateral’ and it reminds me of something else I read in relation to ‘difficult conversations’. It’s basically about the emotional bank account. This needs to have enough in it for some to be taken out of the account. If an individual’s emotional bank account is depleted, they are unlikely to receive any ‘constructive’ feedback positively. It’s a bit like getting your bank statement and seeing it in the red… especially if you have just been paid!! You feel panicked immediately and that is not a good place from which to deal with the problem.
So what do you need to do as a fearless leader?
- Offer praise – if you want to inspire people, you need to tell them they are good. In a study of praise and effectiveness, the most improvement was achieved through praise (71%) compared with criticism (19%) or being ignored (5%).
- Focus on the positive – make sure you get the ‘balance’ right with at least 3 positives for every negative. Basically, every time something good happens, say so. That should give enough credits for when you have to talk to them about improvement.
- Praise for effort rather than ability – telling someone they are good at something is not effective. The trick is to praise for effort rather than ability so notice when individuals try hard and tell them they did well.
Praise builds people up and makes them resilient. Resilient people lead to resilient organisations and we have never needed that more than now so go ahead and tell everyone you work with that you see them and they are amazing.
Have you created a culture of kindness? Have you experienced the limitations of fear? Share your thoughts in the comments below.