Compassion for employees pays off – especially when combined with the enforcement of clear goals and benchmarks, according to recent research from New York’s Binghamton University. 
In a study, Binghamton researchers surveyed almost 1,000 members of the Taiwanese military and around 200 US, full-time workers to analyse the performance levels that stemmed from three, distinct leadership styles:
- Authoritarianism-dominant leadership Leaders who assert absolute authority and control, focused mostly on completing tasks at all costs with little consideration of staff wellbeing;
- Benevolence-dominant leadership Leaders whose primary concern is the personal or familial wellbeing of their employees – these leaders want their followers to feel supported and have strong social ties, and
- Classical paternalistic leadership A leadership style that combines both authoritarianism and benevolence, with a strong focus on task completion as well as employees’ wellbeing.
The findings showed that authoritarianism-dominant leadership almost always had negative impacts upon job performance, while benevolence-dominant leadership almost always had positive impacts. The researchers also found that classical paternalistic leadership had just as strong an effect on staff performance as benevolent-dominant leadership.
As such, they concluded, showing no compassion to employees doesn’t bode well for their job performance – while being openly compassionate motivates them to be better at what they do.
Binghamton assistant professor of management Chou-Yu Tsai, who led the research, explained: “The parent and child relationship is the first leader-follower relationship that people experience. 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.”
Binghamton School of Management professor and associate dean Shelly Dionne noted: “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.”
How should leaders put the lessons of this research into practice?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “At the heart of any contractual understanding – whether that’s between a manager and employee, or specific colleagues, or an organisation and its customers – there is a relationship. There’s something that lies between them. And that’s incredibly human: it’s where we’re picking up cues and signals that, certainly at the moment, artificial intelligence can’t get to grips with. So it’s all about nurturing trust, mutual respect and a genuine regard for each other to ensure that the relationship will work.”
She notes: “When you’re managing someone and all those things are in place, what should accompany them is a genuine desire for that person to do well – which, by extension, means that you care about them. And that’s what is coming through from this research. As the context is the workplace, that ethos must be expressed as: ‘Yes, I care about you as a person – but I also care about your performance. Therefore, I’m going to make my expectations of you as clear as possible, because I care about you doing your job properly. And that’s important, because it will expand the scope for your own advancement.’”
Cooper adds: “It’s mutually beneficial: the manager gets the work carried out to a high standard, while the employee grows in confidence and knowledge, enhancing their capacity to flourish. And that certainly resonates with the parent-child relationship: we want our children to do well so they can develop as people and eventually fend for themselves.”
For further insights into the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on building trust
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