Wake-up Call: Tender works better than tough in bosses

‘Tough’ managers increase stress, which carries workplace costs, research shows

There’s an age-old question out there: is it better to be a “nice” leader to get your staff to like you? Or to be tough as nails to inspire respect and hard work?

Despite the recent enthusiasm for wellness initiatives such as mindfulness and meditation at the office, and despite the movement toward more horizontal organisational charts, most people still assume the latter is best.

After all, if you’re a leader who seems like you care a little too much about your employees, won’t that make you look “soft”? Won’t that mean you will be less respected? That employees will work less hard?

New developments in organisational research are providing some surprising answers to these questions.


“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.

In a study of employees from various organisations, healthcare expenditures for employees with high levels of stress were 46 per cent greater than at similar organisations without high levels of stress.

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.

And an interesting study shows that when leaders are fair to the members of their team, the team members display more citizenship behaviour and are more productive, both individually and as a team.

Jonathan Haidt at New York University's Stern School of Business shows in his research that when leaders are self- sacrificing, their employees experience being moved and inspired. As a consequence, the employees feel more loyal and committed and are more likely to go out of their way to be helpful and friendly to other employees.

Research on “paying it forward” shows that when you work with people who help you, in turn you will be more likely to help others (and not necessarily just those who helped you).

Stress reactivity

Such a culture can even help mitigate stress. While our brains are attuned to threats (whether the threat is a raging lion or a raging boss), our brain’s stress reactivity is significantly reduced when we observe kind behaviour. As brain-imaging studies show, when our social relationships with others feel safe, our brain’s stress response is attenuated.

There’s also a physical effect. 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, what may come as a surprise to many human resources directors is that employees prefer happiness to high pay, as Gallup’s 2013 workplace poll shows. In turn, happier employees make not only for a more congenial workplace, but also for improved collegiality and customer service.

No wonder their nice bosses get promoted.

Emma Seppälä is associate director of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University