Why Civility Is a Leadership Superpower, Backed by Science



Some years ago, I tagged along when a client met with one of his firm’s customers. The CEO of that company spent most of the meeting yelling at his staff.

Then things took a turn for the (even) worse and the CEO got so mad he threw a chair.

Later, as I walked by him in the hallway, I heard him say, “That should keep everyone on their toes.”

Maybe he was a devotee of The Prince; as Machiavelli famously wrote, “It is better to be feared than to be loved, if one cannot be both.” Since it’s hard for (jerk)ish leaders to be loved, hey, go for fear. 

Or maybe he was aware of research that shows warm people are often perceived to be less competent. That people who treat others rudely (and get away with, which is relatively easy when you’re in charge) tend to accumulate greater power. That being considerate or kind can lead to being perceived as weak. 

But what he didn’t realize is this: Considerable research (much of it collected in a 2009 Research in Organizational Behavior paper) shows that fear negatively impacts employee participation and innovation.

As the authors of the paper write:

Research shows that certain verbal behaviors by leaders — such as a raised voice or insulting, abrasive, or threatening remarks — are clear signs of displeasure and therefore, trigger fear in subordinates. These types of aggressive displays may trigger high intensity fear and automatic, non-deliberative defensive silence.

We argue that additional dominance cues, often more subtle ones, may also trigger silence in the presence of those authorities.

None of which required research to intuitively understand.

If I yell at you, you’ll shut down. If I criticize you, you’ll stop making suggestions. If I dismiss your ideas out of hand, you’ll stop pushing back. You’ll go along to get along.

Because the pressure soon gets old. No matter how forcefully presented, messages soon grow stale. Leaders who manage through heavy-handed authority quickly “lose” their teams.

“I’ll do what you tell me to do,” people start to think, “but that’s about it.” And as soon as they can, they’ll do it for — or with — someone else.

That’s a lesson Mark Cuban says it took him years to learn. As Cuban says:

I went through my own metamorphosis. Early on in my career, I was like bam, bam, bam, bam, bam — I might curse. I might get mad. I got to the point…

I wouldn’t have wanted to do business with me when I was in my twenties. I had to change. And I did. And it really paid off.

One of the most underrated skills in business right now is being nice.

The best bosses are demanding. They have high expectations. They occasionally dish out a little tough love.

But — and this is key — they also show their employees, through their words and actions, that they care about them. That they believe in them. That while they may have high expectations, they know their employees are capable of reaching that level of performance.

In short, they ask for a lot — but they ask with courtesy and respect. 

I know what you might be thinking. That all sounds good, but that’s not how it works in the real world.

Actually, that is how it works. 2015 research published in Organizational Dynamics shows that civility — treating people with respect — can lead to startling results

In one experiment, the researchers found that people were 59 percent more willing to share information, 72 percent more likely to seek advice, and 57 percent more likely to seek information from a civil person compared to an uncivil person.

And then there’s this: A civil person inspired people to work 71 percent harder, and be more than 70 percent more likely to want to do well for that person.

So it may be better to be feared than loved.

But it’s clearly much better — especially for leaders — when people respect and appreciate you for the way you treat them.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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An open minded personality.. fun to be with, because of my positive vibes. God fearing, for without God I am nothing.. Moved with compassion when dealing with you, not selfish or self-centered...

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