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Bonnie Hayden Cheng, author of The Return on Kindness, says kind leadership leads to workers who are more engaged and productive.Supplied

When leadership expert Bonnie Hayden Cheng was asked to write a management book in the early years of the pandemic, talented workers were leaving their companies in droves in what was eventually dubbed the Great Resignation.

“People were suffering, and companies were doing the exact opposite of what was needed,” says Dr. Hayden Cheng, who got her PhD from University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and now teaches at the University of Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, companies that were sensitive to their employees’ stress and provided the flexibility and understanding they needed faced less of an exodus, she says. That idea became central to her book, The Return on Kindness: How Kind Leadership Wins Talent, Earns Loyalty, and Builds Successful Companies.

“Kind leaders who build trust with their people create high-trust companies,” says Dr. Hayden Cheng, who examined research on kindness, interviewed business leaders from around the world and continues to collect personal stories at “When you compare high-trust companies with low-trust companies, people are less stressed, have more energy, are more engaged and more productive.”

Dr. Hayden Cheng is among a groundswell of management experts urging leaders to reject stereotypes linking kindness to weakness, and instead view it as a powerful tool for creating strong cultures where people and businesses thrive.

“Kindness is taking intentional action in service to, and for the betterment of, people under your care and connecting with people on a one-to-one basis, human to human.”

It’s an essential human characteristic that evolved as a survival skill, she adds. It also has the added benefit of simply being the decent way to treat people.

“It’s really a world view, a way of engaging with the world, not something you put on when you start your workday.”

Negative stereotypes

Dr. Hayden Cheng says kindness is often negatively associated with a feminine approach to leadership, but notes studies that show women leaders tend to outperform their male counterparts in several areas. She points to research that shows having just one woman on a team leads to better performance than all-male teams, and that female CFOs are less likely to misrepresent corporate finances than male CFOs.

At the same time, she notes that focusing on stereotypical gender norms in leadership “has been damaging to all genders,” and advocates focusing on behaviour instead so all leaders can reap those benefits.

Examples of kind leadership might include flexibility in allowing employees to work where and when is best for them, asking employees about their lives and being responsive to what is going on when there are challenges. It’s about finding out what could make work easier for your staff, then doing something about it.

“If you’re calling yourself a kind leader but people don’t see it in your actions, are you really a kind leader?” she says.

Natasha Jesenak, director of access programs and registrarial services at University of Toronto’s Woodsworth College, says that for her, kindness in leadership is a crucial tool in getting things done across departments in a large and decentralized organization.

“It is so hard to break through the siloed divisions of work here, and there are so few opportunities to build trusting relationships if you don’t have a good foundation,” she says.

Ms. Jesenak says she naturally gravitates to others who demonstrate kindness when looking to collaborate across departments. “I want to be that person, but I also want to know who those people are.”

A key aspect of kind leadership is being as honest and clear as you can with your direct reports, she says, so they have the information they need to succeed. “For anyone to be good at their job, they need to know what is expected of them.”

Approaching conflict with kindness

While some might think being kind means avoiding bad news or conflict, Ms. Jesenak says that’s actually unkind behaviour, because the person will likely find out eventually. The kindness comes in how and when you convey a difficult message, she adds.

“If you just avoid conflict all the time, that doesn’t build trust,” she says.

Lissa Appiah, an Ottawa-based career and personal branding strategist who specializes in working with introverts, says kind leadership can bring out the best in quieter workers.

“It’s really about active listening, taking the time to really understand others and not trying to change people to [fit into] the system that has been created, but acknowledging that everyone has unique value they bring to the workplace,” says Ms. Appiah, who recently co-hosted a four-part webinar series on quiet leadership, with one session focusing on kindness in the workplace.

“Creating a kind work environment does reduce stress and burnout, and makes employees want to stay [and] contribute to what the organization is doing,” she says, noting increased retention can be a big money-saver for a business.

“Ultimately you’re going to create a safe space where you have motivated people; people who are creative and people who will want to work.”

Want to try being a kinder leader?

Here’s an abridged version of how Dr. Hayden Cheng described the RISE model, from her book The Return on Kindness, at a recent event hosted by Rotman School of Management:

R – Role modelling. “If a camera captured you for an entire day, how would you feel about that video being used as training?”

I – Intentional flexibility. “It’s acknowledging and appreciating that each of your people are likely struggling with something different and this will likely change day to day.”

S – Supportive action. “What can I do today to make things a little easier for my people? When you think of it this way, the possibilities are really limitless. It can be a small action or a big fight at the system level.”

E – Energize and equip. “When you think about a leader’s energy, you can really, as a leader, set a positive energy or a negative one.”

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on The Globe Women’s Collective hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback? E-mail us at

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