Pairing Kindness With Accountability at Work

December 27, 2022

Kindness and AccountabilityKindness and Accountability at Work

A very successful start-up company discussed the topic of values in its leadership team meeting. One value that was very important to this company was kindness. In my experience, that was a value I had rarely seen expressed by most organizations. Some organizations say, “People are our greatest asset” or “People are more important than profits.” This organization was explicit about a desire to be kind. As the group discussed this value, one leader spoke up and said, “We want to be kind but also accountable.”

The Impact of Kindness with Accountability

Research shows that when people receive an act of kindness, they pay it back. But does our kindness ever become linked with expectations? December is a time of year when many people search for ways to be more kind to others. One organization found that December accounted for 1/5 of all charitable contributions. You can hear bells ringing on street corners, reminding those who have the means to give. Some may hesitate to be generous, especially if they’re unsure if the funds are going to the right place. People desire to be kind, but do they also want some accountability?

Looking for the Kindness/Accountability Link

The qualities of kindness and accountability are very positive leadership traits, but are they connected? Do they work better together? Zenger Folkman’s large database of millions of assessments from global leaders helped reveal the impact of both skills. In this study, there were 1,959 managers with ratings from their direct reports. Of the 58 items measured by the 360-degree assessment, the kindness items had the lowest correlations to accountability. In some ways, these are opposite traits.

This basically means that, on average, managers who tend to be highly rated on accountability tend to be rated lower on kindness, and those leaders rated as the most kind tended to be rated lower on accountability.

But that was not true for every leader; those leaders who were rated in the top and bottom quartile on accountability and kindness were then separated from the rest and examined.

In addition to rating their leader’s effectiveness on accountability and kindness, each direct report also indicated their satisfaction with the business as a place to work and their willingness to put forth the extra effort every day.

The results of the analysis are displayed in the graph below. Having bottom-quartile skills on both dimensions resulted in low scores on satisfaction and discretionary effort. Interestingly, the high accountability combined with the low kindness group had an 8-percentile point difference in discretionary effort. Holding direct reports accountable to deliver results does generate an increase in discretionary effort, but it also created a substantial increase in satisfaction compared to the low, low group.

What becomes clear as you look at the group is that the top quartile skills in accountability and kindness generated substantially higher scores in satisfaction and discretionary effort.

Study on Kindness and Accountability

The Powerful Combination of Kindness and Accountability

This research implies that the most effective leaders would be both kind and effective at holding others accountable. Kindness has the power to transform your workplace. Receiving those off-hand compliments or displays of gratitude or recognition creates a culture of generosity in an organization. But what is more powerful is when kindness is not only freely given but also earned.

In some ways, the very kind/low accountability leaders treat everyone well regardless of outcomes. Their kindness is a gift but not necessarily earned or deserved. It is a handout regardless of effort. We all value things earned through hard work and effort more than those that come from luck. Holding people accountable puts them in a position to earn their rewards and respect. It gives team members a chance to take the lead or learn a new skill. As much as we appreciate a passing compliment, the recognition we earn from increased accountability has an even sweeter feeling.

The leap from kindness to accountability is not far. Consider how you can improve your kindness by increasing your expectations for accountability. Being kind while holding others accountable creates the opportunity for people to be proud of what they do and earn the recognition they receive.

Joe Folkman, President of ZENGER FOLKMAN

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