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6 Ways to Lead with Kindness During Conflict

Executive Summary

Kindness is the key to leading people through conflict.  

  • Researchers William F. Baker, Ph.D. and Michael O’Malley, Ph.D interviewed several leaders and found they had 6 characteristics of kindness in common.
  • Remaining accessible to your employees and putting yourself in their shoes when they come to you with a problem is important to demonstrating compassion.
  • Humor, among several other character traits, can be a viable source of kindness, especially when members of a team struggle to agree.

Note from the editor: In the past week, I’ve seen a post shared on Facebook from myriad friends and family. The post is a plea to all to demonstrate kindness as states begin tiered plans to open businesses.

Everyone has their own opinion of how and why this virus started, as well as whether it’s wise to slowly put a stop to social distancing measures. These opinions will, no doubt, creep through your workplace and impact how your team interacts and gets their work done.

Conflicts over how your business should handle reopening offices or rebuilding fractured departments are likely to occur. Are you prepared to deal with them without drawing a line in the sand?

Researchers William F. Baker, Ph.D. and Michael O’Malley, Ph.D, analyzed the character traits of some of the world’s greatest leaders and identified 6 common elements of kindness in leadership.

If you want to be an effective leader during conflict, display the following qualities in your personal and professional life.

kindness in blocks
  1. Compassion

Compassion in the workplace matters because it provides employees with that extra amount of strength they need to perform, whether it’s overcoming personal problems, trouble at home, or job-specific challenges. But in order to provide the type of support that may be needed, the would-be leader first needs to imagine what someone who is in pain is going through. That is, the leader needs to have empathy: to understand what another is feeling and care enough to do something about it.

But sometimes we get disconnected from the plights of others and become unduly insular in our outlook. Leaders become increasingly isolated from the employees in the trenches and, come to think of it, their customers. The leadership remedy is to stay in touch with those who work for you so that you get to know the people and what they are up against. One simple solution is to leave the executive suite and venture into the field, remaining accessible to the rank and file.

  1. Integrity

People with integrity are solid, doing what people are supposed to do: They reliably, consistently, and predictably act on a set of values that ensures safety in interpersonal encounters. They keep promises and confidences, remain forthright and noninvasive, and are unbiased and even-handed. This characteristic manifests itself in many ways including:

  • Hiring: It is far easier to bring in people who subscribe to your belief system than to try to influence behavior after the fact.
  • Performance management: Whereas there is some tolerance for temporary performance-related failings, hiring errors associated with chronic underperformance, poor cultural fit, or severe violations of the corporate code of ethics are unfailingly remedied swiftly.
  • Leadership: A leader who obviously acts in ways inconsistent with the norms and values of the organization will be scorned by employees as a corporate hypocrite, while subtly inviting those with a passion for self-interest to join him in similar violations.
  1. Gratitude

To be grateful is to realize that one’s life story includes many important characters, good and bad, and that one has benefited from the goodwill and sacrifices of others. In addition to having a sense of abundance and an aptitude to derive pleasure from the little things in life, gratitude is also revealing of an attitude. There are many benevolent people out there, and what has always struck us is how some people are more receptive to generosity than others. Fundamentally, in order to receive the gift of kindness, you have to accept that you cannot succeed alone. You must admit that you are not entirely self-sufficient and are dependent on others.

A few years ago, bona fide good guy Richard Smucker (the current co-CEO of Smucker’s and a fourth-generation Smucker) found a letter written by his father that sums up in practical terms what it means to appreciate and express gratitude:

  • Say “thank you.”
  • Listen with full attention.
  • Look for the good in others.
  • Have a sense of humor.
  1. Authenticity

Our view of authenticity and its antonym, fraudulence, is related to what we mean when we say that someone is a poseur. The way in which poseurs present themselves has no correlation to their inner lives and convictions. That is, they don’t behave in a way that reflects what they truly think and feel, if these qualities are known to them in the first place.

Signs of disingenuous leadership include:

  • Mannequin management: Viewing the people who work for you and the employees of your respective organizations as automatons whose movements can be effectively determined
  • Playing to the crowd: Deliberate attempts to influence a group strictly through emotional appeals
  1. Humility

The value of humility to leadership—and the reason it emerged as such an important asset among our cohort of leaders—owes to the “groundedness” of the people who have it. The “humus” in humility is, quite literally, the dirt beneath their feet. It is what keeps them down-to-earth and gives the organizations they lead special strategic advantages. Without humility to counteract the effects of undue pride, people who seek out the spotlight can behave excessively. They can make a risky and ill-advised acquisition or rashly bet the farm on an unproven product.

Humble leaders aren’t frightened by the truth and go to great lengths to ensure that they receive it. Humble leaders keep things in perspective. They are pragmatists who understand what the organization is able to do and how quickly it can move.

  1. Humor

Laughter is the reminder that our lives are supposed to be more pliable, playful, and creative versus weighted down by social gravitas and relentlessly burdened by the presumed seriousness of everything. Humor and laughter are natural reactions to stress. They express relief. Humor also diminishes the anxieties associated with stressors. Cracking a well-timed joke can put people at ease and give them a sense of control over the situation. The use of humor is an assertion that one is unafraid and will not allow oneself to be overwhelmed by events.

Among other things, humor is a wake-up call to lighten up and view problems in a different light. And there is much to recommend for humor: A sense of humor has been related to interpersonal competencies such as warmth, ability to listen, flexible thinking and perspective-taking, openness, maturity, and kindness.

William F. Baker

William F. Baker is President Emeritus of New York City’s channel Thirteen/WNET and an Executive in Residence at Columbia University Business School and Professor at Fordham University. Baker received his Ph.D. in Communications and Organizational Behavior.

Michael O'Malley

Michael O’Malley is a psychologist with more than 20 years of consulting experience with Fortune’s 500 companies. He is an adjunct professor at Columbia University Business School and the Executive Editor for Business, Economics, and Law at Yale University Press.

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