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New Study Finds That It Pays to be Nice to Your Workers

September 19, 2018 by Josh Hrala

A new study by a joint-team of researchers has found that showing compassion to subordinates pays off big time, especially when bosses enforce clear goals.

In other words, being nice to workers makes them better at their jobs. Who’da thought, right?

“Being benevolent is important because it can change the perception your followers have of you,” said Chou-Yu Tsai, from Binghampton University’s School of Management.

“If you feel that your leader or boss actually cares about you, you may feel more serious about the work you do for them.”

The team’s goal was to study how the absence or presence of compassion in the workplace related to job performance.

To do so, the team – consisting of researchers for multiple universities – surveyed nearly 1,000 members of the Taiwanese military alongside 200 full-time workers in the US.

They then looked at how the management styles differed to glean how compassion plays a role.

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First, they defined the different types of leaders they found.

The first type was ‘authoritarianism-dominant leadership’, which is when a leader focused solely on job performance and tasks, paying little to no attention to compassion for the workers.

The second was ‘benevolence-dominant leadership’ where the leader’s primary concern is the well-being of their subordinates, paying close attention to social situations and things of that nature over task performance.

And the third was ‘classical paternalistic leadership’, which is a combination of the other two where the leader is both focused on the task at hand and how people perform but also highly concerned with the well-being of the staff members, too.

After defining the different types of leadership, the team then looked at how each performed.

As you probably guessed, the authoritarian-dominant group always performed negatively because treating workers like they are tools makes them not want to work hard for the leader.

On the other hand, the benevolence-dominant and classical paternalistic groups both showed positive growth, suggesting that even leaders who push hard for goals can motivate their workforce more by caring for their overall well-being.

Back to Childhood

While it stands to reason that benevolence plays a positive role in the workforce – after all, who is going to give it their all if their boss is mean to them 100 percent of the time? – the strange takeaway is that just because a boss is benevolent doesn’t mean that they have to be a push over.

And the researchers think this goes all the way back to how we were raised by our parents (hence the ‘paternalistic’ part of that leadership style).

“The parent and child relationship is the first leader-follower relationship that people experience,” Tsai said.

“It can become a bit of a prototype of what we expect out of leadership going forward, and the paternalistic leadership style kind of resembles that of a parent.”

Warehouse worker and manager looking at laptop in a large warehouse

Basically, this means that people react strongly to leaders who have clear goals and will strive to meet those goals if the leader isn’t a robot without emotions, expecting their staff to grind away without looking at their human side.

“The findings imply that showing personal and familial support for employees is a critical part of the leader-follower relationship,” said Shelley Dionne, also from Binghampton University.

“While the importance of establishing structure and setting expectations is important for leaders, and arguably parents, help and guidance from the leader in developing social ties and support networks for a follower can be a powerful factor in their job performance.”

Two Different Groups

Like we mentioned up top, the researchers used two groups of individuals for their survey: the Taiwanese military and US workers.

This is a strange mix, isn’t it?

Of course it is. But the researchers say that the vast differences between the groups is actually a good thing because the results carry across both, hinting that benevolence as a leadership quality works across the board and in many different situations.

As research team member Francis Yammarino, from Binghampton University, puts it:

“The consistency in the results across different cultures and different job types is fascinating. It suggests that the effectiveness of paternalistic leadership may be more broad-based than previously thought, and it may be all about how people respond to leaders and not about where they live or the type of work they do.”

The Takeaways

The takeaway from this study is simple: if you want your workers to perform to the best of their ability, you need to treat them with respect and compassion because if you don’t, they will actually care less about achieving the goals set out for them.

“Subordinates and employees are not tools or machines that you can just use. They are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect,” concludes Tsai.

“Make sure you are focusing on their well-being and helping them find the support they need, while also being clear about what your expectations and priorities are. This is a work-based version of ‘tough love’ often seen in parent-child relationships.”

The team’s findings were published in the journal Leadership Quarterly. Read the full study here.

Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

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