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Positive leadership: the business case for leading with kindness

Ask people about their career, and many will have a ‘bad boss’ story to share.

We know that effective leadership is key to employee retention, so why are so many bosses still getting it wrong and what traits and behaviours should they exhibit to hold onto staff?

In this blog, we’ll explore the idea of positive leadership in the workplace, drawing on teachings from our online Psychology of Kindness and Wellbeing at Work PGCert course to demonstrate the impact kindness in particular can have on empowering employees and driving business performance.


What is positive leadership?

Positive leadership describes a leadership style built on ‘positive’ traits and behaviours and is an area of study within the field of positive psychology.

Unlike clinical psychology which focuses on managing and treating mental illnesses, positive psychology, as the science of wellbeing, looks at positive experiences and behaviours, as well as the conditions required to nurture wellbeing in various contexts such as work.

In actual fact, positive leadership is more of an umbrella term encompassing various leadership styles and theories including servant, ethical, responsible, authentic, and transformational. The latter of these is widely acknowledged to be the most successful in business settings – although leaders must adapt and tailor their style to the specific organisation.

Transformational leadership involves:

  • intellectual stimulation i.e., encouraging others to innovate and ‘think big’
  • individual consideration i.e., showing care for others’ individual needs
  • inspirational motivation i.e., motivating others through a clear vision
  • idealised influence i.e., acting as a role model and communicating charismatically

Put simply, positive leaders in business prioritise employee wellbeing over their own self interests.


Why is positive leadership important?

Positive leadership is important for businesses because of its impact on employee wellbeing and organisational performance.

It’s important to note that when we speak about a person’s wellbeing in psychology, we’re not simply describing whether they feel happy or not (although this is important), we’re also concerned with their ability to function well.

In a professional context, functioning well looks like someone performing at their best, and therefore driving great results for their organisation.

This idea is supported by research conducted by Kim Cameron, a prominent positive organisational scholar. Across multiple studies over 15 years, he demonstrates how positive leadership and practices can improve:

  • profitability
  • productivity
  • staff wellbeing
  • staff motivation
  • quality of work
  • innovation
  • customer satisfaction
  • staff retention.

“The duty of a leader is to create an organization where it is easy to practice kindness.”
— Kim Cameron

Watch Cameron discuss his work on positive leadership here.


How to be a positive leader

In the workplace, positive leaders inspire, motivate and empower their employees. But what does this look like in practice?

Here are just a few examples.

Fostering a culture of psychological safety

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished for making a mistake or expressing concerns.

In a work environment, a feeling of safety is linked to high performance in teams, making staff more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent. Research also indicates a correlation with solution-finding and divergent thinking – a cognitive must-have for creativity.

Leaders can create psychologically safe environments by explicitly encouraging staff to raise issues, challenge the status quo, experiment, and take (calculated) risks in their jobs. Introducing official processes or opportunities where staff can express concerns, pitch new ideas, or talk through failures and subsequent learnings might also help with this.

Investing in employees’ development

Providing training and other opportunities for professional and personal growth is key to employee empowerment.

Offering strength assessments for each employee could be a good place to start. This wellbeing intervention is used in many corporate settings to help employees identify their unique character strengths and understand how they can best add value in their business.

A 2018 study carried out by Ghielen et al., proved that an awareness of character strengths has a broad impact on:

  • wellbeing and happiness
  • job performance and satisfaction, including employee engagement
  • social relationships and group dynamics, including teamwork and group cohesion.

Demonstrating the positive behaviours you wish to see in others

To encourage positive behaviours in the workplace – kindness, collaboration, fairness etc., – leaders must exhibit these in their role and in every interaction with employees.

This links to the phenomenon explored in organisational psychology of emotional contagion, i.e., the idea that we mimic the emotions transmitted by others, particularly those in prominent positions like leaders.

To enhance positive emotions and behaviours in work environments, leaders must therefore set the tone – praising and thanking others for good work, supporting employees who need help, or showing strength in times of crisis.


How does kindness relate to leadership?

Great leaders are often characterised as confident, focused and resilient but what about so-called ‘softer’ qualities? Is kindness a leadership trait?

There is scarce research supporting the idea that kindness is critical to positive leadership, but interest in this area is growing.

A 2014 study by Zenger and Folkman involving almost 52,000 leaders found that an unkind leader had just a one in 2,000 chance of being effective, and that strong emotional connections, co-operation over competition, coaching and mentoring, and excellent communication led to higher kindness scores in leaders.

In more recent years, and particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of kindness at work has been emphasised, along with an understanding that those at the top must set the standard for others to follow.

A 2020 report titled Kind Leadership in a Crisis and Beyond developed by Hall and Partners in conjunction with the University of Oxford, Saïd Business School, and Global Thinkers Forum revisited a leadership survey from 2019 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One thousand five hundred participants from across the globe completed the survey and industry leaders from a variety of sectors were also interviewed. The COVID-19 crisis led to these leaders adapting and creating new leadership styles to become more supportive and empowering.
The report combined both leader and employee results to produce a guide that demonstrates the importance of kindness in leaders for both organisations and their people.

Learn more about the psychology of kindness and the positive effects kind acts can have on both the giver and receiver.


How to drive positive change in your organisation

Our Psychology of Kindness and Wellbeing at Work PGCert has been designed to help those responsible for staff wellbeing – whether that’s HR staff looking to influence those at the top or senior leaders themselves.

Delivered from Sussex’s School of Psychology, our 100% online Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) looks specifically at the power of kindness in work contexts and its impact on wellbeing and organisational performance.

The curriculum will develop your theoretical understanding of both kindness and wellbeing while ensuring you develop the practical skills needed to make an impact in your organisation right away.

You’ll discover:

  • the importance of kindness in leadership and teams
  • how to navigate the threats to wellbeing at work in a post-Covid world
  • kindness and wellbeing interventions
  • how to measure wellbeing at work.

As a fully online and part-time course, you can join us wherever you’re based in the world, without the need to pause your career or sacrifice other important commitments.

Visit the Psychology of Kindness and Wellbeing at Work course page for full details and register your interest via the form to speak with an advisor.