Forbes senior contributor Kathy Caprino provides an instructive list of damaging managerial behaviors in her recent article “If You’re Engaging in Any of These Actions, You Shouldn’t Be a Manager.” The title, however, suggests that the destructive behaviors in her checklist are incorrigible—that is, if you’re engaging in any of them, you should be dismissed or never attempt to be a manager in the first place. I disagree with this implication. She does offer a brief discussion of remedies to the problems she lists in the body of the article, so it’s difficult to say whether she was responsible for the fatalism of that heading or an editor tacked it on without her input.
In my experience, for every unapologetically thoughtless jerk holding a manager’s position, there are a hundred managers who simply need a better understanding of the effect their words and actions have on others. Most employees, regardless of their position, consider a personally effective supervisor to model compassion as well as productivity. Plus, as Caprino points out, the two qualities are linked in the sense that turnover is greatly reduced when workers feel welcome in their workplace.
The first step should not be to root out the people responsible for the behaviors Caprino highlights, because if we are honest with ourselves, we have all been guilty of at least some of them at one time or another, to a greater or lesser degree:
- Demeaning or ridiculing others
- Suppressing questions or inquiries
- Responding cruelly to poor productivity
- Not making time to guide or mentor reports
- Blaming others for your own failures
- Not making time to solicit feedback
There are often powerful reasons for our bad behaviors: Perhaps we are under tremendous stress and time constraints, our own supervisors treat us poorly, or our team is, in fact, underperforming compared to the rest of the organization. When we feel besieged by demands in the workplace, we often lose self-awareness and become more susceptible to cruel, thoughtless behavior.
In my capacity as an executive coach at TGC, I work with my clients to foster the four conditions of what I term “genuine kindness” in the workplace. The goal of these behavioral conditions is to align respect with productivity. The efficiency of genuine kindness is the way in which compassion naturally produces goal execution without a lot of extra work. Consider how each condition below could address the unkind and counterproductive behaviors listed above.
Self-Awareness and Willingness: Good managers have a thorough understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and the ways in which they habitually react in different workplace situations. Take the time to conduct a thorough self-assessment, such as through a strengths inventory and 360 feedback process, and devise strategies to address the resulting insights.
Responding vs. Reacting: Listening thoughtfully to team members is the best way for managers to empower themselves with new information while also demonstrating respect for others. This requires mitigating emotional reactivity or the anxious desire to control a situation without input from others. Responses, whether in support or disagreement, should show that you have considered input with thoughtful reflection.
Authenticity: Enter into a kind, respectful engagement with others in the spirit of doing the right thing, not in the hope of “performing” kindness in order to look good or get what you want. This is not about you appearing better in other people’s eyes or manipulating them with flattery; it’s about improving the functionality and well-being of the workplace by treating everyone with dignity.
Accountability: Do not tolerate bad behavior from those who report to you, even if they seem to be high performers in the organization. Believe me—what is gained in the short run through the toleration of one employee’s disrespectful, “by any means necessary” conduct will ultimately contaminate and counteract productivity, retention, and morale in the long run.
All four of these conditions are key, but I purposely begin with self-awareness, foregrounding its importance as a foundation for the rest. In every human interaction, each side contributes to the character and tone of the exchange, whether positive or negative. It is impossible to understand why communication goes awry when you have no awareness of your role in it or simply assume that you are a neutral player and not part of the problem.
I have encountered managers who contribute to a climate of ridicule, indifference, disinterest, or evasiveness without even realizing it. They often come to me with a frank, compassionate desire to improve engagement, not realizing that their own communication styles have helped derail morale and productivity. They are not malicious or inherently cruel people; they actually want to make the lives of their employees more meaningful and rewarding, even though their previous behavior has run counter to their goals.
In the rut of bad habits, any of us can inadvertently demean others, deflect blame, avoid helping the situation, and react to mistakes with personal anxiety rather than a measured response that aims to resolve the problem and improve working relationships. Through willing self-awareness, we can see workplace interactions clearly—accurately gauging how much we add to any dysfunction—and head off issues before they become ingrained, automatic, and, ultimately, destructive.