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Compassionate leaders have healthier employees, research finds

Companies might be better off focusing on developing compassionate managers than on implementing corporate wellness programs.

If you want to be an effective boss, what style of leadership is best? Some people think a tough, “no-nonsense” management style is most productive. Be stern, firm and somewhat distant from your employees, they say. Others argue for a warmer, more generous approach, one in which trust and mutual cooperation play key roles.

As Emma Seppala, a Stanford University research psychologist, points out in an article published online last week in the Harvard Business Review, the latest research on management style has turned up some interesting and, perhaps, surprising findings.

Nice guys (and gals), it turns out, finish first.

Writes Seppala:

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“Tough” managers often mistakenly think that putting pressure on employees will increase performance. What it does increase is stress — and research has shown that high levels of stress carry a number of costs to employers and employees alike.

Stress brings high health care and turnover costs. In a study of employees from various organizations, health care expenditures for employees with high levels of stress were 46 percent greater than at similar organizations without high levels of stress. In particular, workplace stress has been linked to coronary heart disease in both retrospective (observing past patterns) and prospective (predicting future patterns) studies. Then there’s the impact on turnover: research shows that workplace stress can lead them to look for a new job, decline a promotion, or leave a job.

Is it any better with “nice” managers? Do their employees fare better — and do kind bosses get ahead? 

Contrary to what many believe, [University of Pennsylvania psychologist] Adam Grant’s data shows that nice guys (and gals!) can actually finish first, as long as they use the right strategies that prevent others from taking advantage of them. In fact, other research has shown that acts of altruism actually increase someone’s status within a group.

Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy and her research partners have also shown that leaders who project warmth — even before establishing their competence — are more effective than those who lead with their toughness and skill. Why? One reason is trust. Employees feel greater trust with someone who is kind.

A good boss is good for the heart

The research seems to suggest that companies would do better to focus more resources on developing compassionate managers than on implementing corporate wellness programs. Writes Seppala:

Whereas a lack of bonding within the workplace has been shown to increase psychological distress, positive social interactions at work have been shown to boost employee health — for example, by lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and by strengthening the immune system. In fact, a study out of the Karolinska Institute conducted on over 3,000 employees found that a leader’s qualities were associated with incidence of heart disease in their employees. A good boss may literally be good for the heart.

Of course, as Seppala points out, organizations and companies often aren’t sure how to define — and create — a compassionate leadership style and workplace environment.

“Many companies try to offer well-being ‘perks’ such as the ability to work from home or receive extra benefits,” she writes. “A Gallup poll showed that, even when the workplace offered benefits such as flextime and work-from-home opportunities, engagement predicted well-being above and beyond anything else. And most of the research suggests that a compassionate workplace fosters engagement not so much through material goods as through the qualities of the organizations’ leaders, such as a sincere commitment to values and ethics, genuine interpersonal kindness, and self-sacrifice.”

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“What is clear is that we’re going to have to start valuing kindness at work more,” she adds. “One depressing study out of Notre Dame suggests that for men, the more agreeable they are, the lower their pay rate. Because agreeableness does not impact women’s salary, the researchers theorize that when we don’t conform to gender norms, we’re punished. The answer is not for men to be cruel, but for us all to help change the norms. With a little skill, there are ways to be agreeable while not being a pushover or a softy. And then maybe we’ll all be a little bit happier at work.”

You can read Seppala’s article on the Harvard Business Review’s website.