The Myth of the Ruthless Business Mogul (or Why It Pays to Be Nice in the Workplace)

It’s still commonplace for bosses to think that they need to rule with an iron fist. This is never more apparent than in the sports world. Football coaches behave like tyrannic despots. They yell, degrade, and even hit to motivate their players. They think that if they’re not feared, there will be mutiny. Turn on the TV on any Saturday or Sunday in the fall and you’re likely to see a stout man in a hat screaming in the face of a 20-year-old kid.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this behavior as a basketball player, and the situation can go one of two ways: You do what the man is saying because he put the fear of God into you, or you spitefully keep doing your own thing because that guy clearly doesn’t respect you.

While this is an extreme example (managers at Big Box, Inc. probably don’t call their employees “worthless sacks of human garbage”), the question of whether the hard-nosed style of motivation is the right way to lead applies to all workplaces.

Thankfully, the trend seems to be shifting towards workplaces that value cooperation, constructive criticism, and employee empowerment. This is because people are researching the effects of different management styles, and the power of benevolence is winning out.

If you’re in charge of a group of people, you’d do well to heed the flood of research coming out that shows that nice bosses make happy people, and happy people make more money for themselves and the businesses they work for. If you’re a manager, here are some guidelines to help you become a better boss with more productive employees.

It’s Not Good to Be Feared

As much as the coaches and generals would disagree, ruling by fear is ultimately harmful. As the Harvard Business Review pointed out in 2013, “Fear can undermine cognitive potential, creativity, and problem solving, and cause employees to get stuck and even disengage.”

While the boss might think that scaring someone into doing their work faster leads to more efficiency, in reality it just engenders distrust. This distrust manifests in lower work outputs and a toxic workplace environment. On the other hand, workplaces built on trust and respect “generally lead to higher economic gains,” according to the HBR.

Other studies bolster this point. Research out of North Carolina State University demonstrated that when bosses are thought to be fair, workers collaborate better in a group setting. The study’s authors conclude that, “If you think you are being treated well, you are going to work well with others on your team.”

More effective collaboration leads to more efficient product development, and ultimately the creation of a lower-cost and higher-quality product. Win-win!

Don’t Stress Out Your Employees

One thing everyone can agree on is that increased pressure from your boss leads to higher stress. I used to wear a heart rate monitor at all times while working an office job. This job somehow managed the double whammy of being both boring and stressful. That’s the worst of both worlds, like driving a minivan that’s less safe than a sports car.

I noticed that when my boss came out of his office, my heart rate would increase. This was before he even said anything. I was so programmed to be ready to put out a fire (or worse, to be told to make a cappuccino with juuuuuust the right amount of foam) that my body went into fight or flight mode the second his door opened. As you might imagine, that’s not a healthy reaction.

Stress in short bursts is a good thing. These are so-called hormetic stressors. Exercise is a hormetic stress. You briefly make your muscles do something difficult, which causes a slight breakdown in the tissues. But, with proper rest, they are rebuilt to be stronger than before.

This applies in the workplace as well. A tough boss who inspires fear in his or her employees might be effective in motivating them to complete a pressing project on time. But, if this tactic is used with impunity, it loses its desired effect. Like an athlete who overtrains, the constant stress eventually leads to injury.

The quality of a boss can have a direct effect on the extent of how injured their employees become. One 3,000-person study showed that disliked bosses managed a workforce with a higher likelihood of getting heart disease.

And it’s not just the heart. Studies show a 46% increase in employee health care expenses overall, as well as a higher employee turnover rate, especially among women. A high turnover rates is a drain on any business — it costs both time and money to recruit and train new employees – but turnover can be mitigated by fair, reasonable bosses. 

Leaders on the cutting edge are realizing the benefits of cultivating a positive workplace. Unlimted PTO (paid time off), in-office perks, and company ethics that center around inclusion and compassion are all on the rise. These practices can lead to more successful businesses in the long run. 

It’s Not All About Money

Contrary to what many people assume, employees value happiness more than high salaries. It’s amazing that we need science to tell us that people really want to be happy while doing whatever it is they do for 40 hours a week, but here we are.

Still, the happiness research begs the important question of what makes us happy at work. The answers can be highly subjective, but the studies point toward one possible common solution: Engagement. Those who find value in their work, enjoy spending time with co-workers, and believe that their boss has their best interest in mind are going to be happy. It seems obvious, but anyone who has spent any time in an office knows that finding a job that ticks all three of those boxes is like finding a unicorn.

Bosses who take the time to foster engagement among their employees are going to run a more successful business. That means employers who think outside the box to create a thriving company culture can be just as successful as those who only focus on paying the highest salaries.

Summing Up

If you’re a boss who leans towards the “NFL Football Coach” end of the bell curve, it could be time to loosen up a bit. And if you’re an employee working for someone who thinks that burning the candle at both ends while taking a blowtorch to the middle is the only way to do business, it could be time to put your resume out there. You’ll likely be healthier, happier, and ultimately more successful in a friendlier environment.

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