To many people, the idea of compassionate leadership is too touchy-feely at best and bad management at worst. But new research suggests that rather than making them look soft, acts of kindness and altruism increase leaders’ standing in a group.
In some contexts, that can translate into a serious competitive advantage.
When Nice Guys Finish First
Consider this choice: Given two individuals with equivalent talent and skills, who do you look up to and prefer to work with, promote, or invite onto a project? Chances are it’s the more compassionate one.
If that sounds intuitively right, it’s now getting some backing by science—with a few conditions. Wharton professor Adam Grant argues that kindness and compassion give us a far greater advantage than self-absorption. Nice guys do finish first, he explains, as long as they learn how not to let others take advantage of them.
In his best-selling book, “Give and Take,” Grant explains that, yes, as many suspect, compassionate leaders sometimes do lose out. People who care about others’ well-being and look out for their colleagues and employees—the group Grant calls “givers”—are overrepresented at the bottom of the success ladder, having been mown down by selfish “takers.”
But here’s the surprising finding: Grant also reveals that “givers” are overrepresented at the very top of the success ladder, too. How can that be?
There’s a high concentration of “givers” at the bottom of the success ladder, but also at the very top.
It turns out that givers are more liked and appreciated and therefore become more influential.
The difference between successful and unsuccessful givers often comes down to strategy: When givers learn strategies that prevent others from taking advantage of them, their “nice” qualities end up helping them succeed above and beyond anyone else. Why? In part because everyone loves working with them and appreciates them for their kind and giving qualities.
How Compassion Breeds Trust
In addition to being pleasant and easy to work with, compassion makes you trustworthy. Trust is a crucial aspect of our lives because it makes us feel safe. Probably because managers and leaders determine our work experience—harsh and stressful or pleasant and enjoyable—we’re especially sensitive to signs of trustworthiness in our leaders.
We prefer leaders who are warm to those who project tough characteristics.
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