Career Advice

Why being kind as a leader trumps yelling every time

Are you conscious of how you react as a leader when someone makes you angry? With an attack or with kindness?

I once worked with a head of sales who, when things were not going his way, would curse out anyone not on his team who he thought didn’t appreciate how hard his job was. Unkind, unnecessary accusations of incompetence or intentionally obstructing sales. Engineering, customer success, marketing – you name it – they all got yelled at instead of constructively engaged. But unpredictably so everyone walked on egg shells around him.

I recently saw a situation where an employee disappointed a startup CEO and the CEO chose to call her up and scream at her. Profanity laden, unfounded accusations of mal intent. The employee had resigned at an inopportune time and the CEOs reaction was to attack. Not give the employee the benefit of the doubt, or quietly share her disappointment.

And sometimes it even happens with customers. But in all cases shouting and bullying is not only poor leadership – it is harassment.

It’s so easy to react emotionally and react with anger. To raise your voice and attack. To clench your fists and shake with emotion. It is so much harder to react with kindness and yet being kind is often one of the characteristics of great executives. Not soft or weak; kind.

This is because it takes extra energy and thought to manage your reaction. It takes caring about the people you are leading or working with more than yourself. You have to step back and make the mental space to think through what’s behind the employee’s action. Have they made a mistake because they did not have enough information? Or because they didn’t think their action through? And if so how should you react to help them make a different decision next time?

I had the pleasure of working for a COO once who was a master at this. He never got angry, never raised his voice. He had a staff who were strong willed and opinionated – we must have been a nightmare to manage. Several of us went on to bigger jobs as CEOs, professors, GMs but at the time we were never satisfied, always pushing for more and for change. And we were definitely not always constructive. I learned, while working for Chi-Foon Chan at Synopsys, that you never need to attack to get your way. You can listen, respond with thought and patience and still exercise tremendous power. Very, very occasionally the chief would get angry but he would go quiet and still and wait us out and then quietly corner us with intellect. Impressive and something I aspired to once I was a CEO (although not always successfully).

The net result of having the self-control to think of your employee first and be kind is that people will remember you positively, will want to work for you, and will recommend other people work for you. You will make their lives better and they will be in the foxhole with you as you grow your company. And if their own careers are growing and they want to move onto a bigger job they will talk with you about it so a) you will not be surprised and b) you can help them find their next position – thereby earning their lifelong loyalty. I worked with a first-class CFO once who had three department heads: Accounting, FP&A and Treasury and he was clear that part of his job was to groom each one of these heads to be a CFO, knowing that when they were ready they would leave him. He succeeded and inspired deep loyalty in everyone who worked for him.

So if you find yourself reacting with anger and raising your voice, or worse yet yelling at an employee, step back and count to ten. Breathe deep and find another way. It’s simply not worth the destruction of relationship that occurs when you lose your temper.