Let’s talk leadership. A lot of people are. Recently, Tony Schwartz in his New York Times column brought up three exemplary leaders — Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, and Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. These men have two things in common: they all believed they could change the world, and they all have reputations for having been unreasonably hard on their employees.
Does this make sense that you sometimes have to be cruel to be successful? A real leader is unafraid to tell it like is. But is being a bully really the best way of doing it?
That’s the conventional wisdom. I’d say that Bezos, Jobs, and Musk succeeded despite their lack of empathy for employees, not because of it. If they had treated their employees better, perhaps they could have been even more successful and improved thousands of people’s lives in the process.
Bullying doesn’t show strength of character — it shows weakness. As Lady Gaga so succinctly put it, “There really is no difference between the bully and the victim.”
For me, Bezos, Jobs, and Musk are the exceptions, not the rule. The problem with looking to them as role models is that most people who find themselves in leadership roles don’t have the same luxury. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, and that’s exactly why leaders should strive to bring their best selves to work.
Those who treat their employees poorly are compensating for their deficiencies as leaders. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: qualities like empathy and compassion are not traditionally associated with strong leadership, but they are actually the very things that could turn an average leader into a true visionary.
We all find confidence in data. Let’s look at the data. New research conducted at Georgetown University and elsewhere shows that incivility at work significantly damages employee health, hijacks employee focus, and lowers employee creativity. In one study of hospitals, 71 percent of staff tied disruptive behavior to medical errors and 27 percent tied it to patient deaths. In another study, participants who were intimidated by experimenters performed 30–60 percent worse in word puzzles and came up with 40–60 percent fewer ideas.
Aside from the impact on health and productivity, there’s the retention problem. Turnover at tech firms is at an all-time high and can cost a company 1.5 to 2 times an employee’s salary. At a time when organizations live and die by their intellectual and creative capital, they simply can’t afford a toxic office culture.
As a senior executive who has run companies, and worked as a consultant for most of my career, I’ve seen the insides of thousands of firms, so I can validate what these studies have found: a toxic workplace is ultimately an unproductive one. Furthermore, toxic atmospheres tend to take shape from the top down. Leaders have a responsibility to set the right tone and correct bad behavior when they see it around them. It’s more than a moral or ethical responsibility — it’s their responsibility to the business.
So why does incivility at work happen? Does work simply bring out the worst in people, or is something else going on? The Georgetown research suggests the behavior comes from feelings of insecurity: 50 percent of respondents said they behaved uncivilly because they felt overloaded, and 40 percent said they had no time to be nice. These findings should come as no surprise to busy leaders. When the pressures of work get to you, or when you feel overwhelmed by the task at hand, it can be all too tempting to lash out at those around you.
The research also shows that large numbers of people are actually afraid to be nice at work: 25 percent said that being nice would make them seem less leader-like, 40 percent said they would be taken advantage of, and almost 50 percent said it would be better to flex your muscles to acquire power. Here again, leaders might recognize that “dog eat dog” mentality they encountered on their way to the top.
If you as a leader feel there is no time to be nice, or if you worry that being nice will detract from your ability to lead, there’s a good chance that your employees feel that way too. By showing the cost and the origins of incivility at work, the new research highlights the value of empathy in an organization, as well as the importance of leading by example. When you lead through empathy, you are factoring employee perspectives into your decision-making and empowering them to realize a collective vision. It’s easier said than done, but it begins with the recognition that they face many of the same pressures that you do.
In my own experience, if you’re not listening to your employees you are omitting 50 percent of the information you need to make a good decision. Leaders are often perfectionists, so we sometimes forget that we can’t be good at everything. But tough decisions often become easier when you’re in a mutually supportive environment.
This reminds me of my friend Terry Tietzen, the founder and CEO of a customer loyalty software company, edatanetworks. He has spent 14 years developing a new software platform for philanthropy called Network of Giving. He managed to keep the same team of people together, working on the same problem for all these years. In 2012 he told the New York Times about some of the strategies he uses to make his employees feel like they are part of something greater. One is to encourage employees to shape the collective vision by working on a specific part of it and providing their assessment at the end of each day, rather than venting up front. In this way they weigh in with actual innovations instead of opinions, and they gain confidence as they see the impacts of their daily contributions. I like this strategy because it takes the pressure off both leaders and employees to be perfect all the time. The team exists to fill the gaps in what one person couldn’t possibly do alone.
It’s no surprise that the Georgetown research found that people perceived as civil were twice as likely to be viewed as leaders. The reason? Civility creates perceptions of warmth and competence, which in turn dictate whether people will trust and follow you. And what’s the one characteristic associated with a failed executive? The bully.
A visionary is not just someone who sees the future, but someone who also sees how to get there. A visionary can’t do it alone. You need others to help you. You need a team of talented people. And you need to keep that team focused over a long period of time.
Motivating by fear might work, but motivating by inspiration is a surer shot. Being a visionary in the fullest sense means being inward-looking as well as outward-looking, and seeing those who work with you as the indispensable human capital needed to achieve your goal.
In the end, it’s not the choreographer who takes the stage — it’s the dancers.