Gary McGaghey Explains Why Kindness Is Key to Good Leadership

How to improve your leadership skills with kindness and compassion.

Every day, managers and employees face unexpected challenges at work. This has always been the case. But the level of difficulties we face soared last year when COVID-19 put millions of people in immensely difficult – sometimes devastating – situations. In fact, at the time, early research found that the pandemic had a negative impact on 42 percent [CM1] of survey respondents’ mental health. Since then, deeply concerning stories and stats surrounding mental health struggles have flooded the news and social media.

That’s why the divisional and group CFO Gary McGaghey emphasises the importance of upholding kindness and compassion in all aspects of our lives, including our working lives. That said, he notes that the notion of kindness often slips when CFOs and other senior leaders navigate crises, especially when managing layoffs, new technologies, market downturns, and countless other difficulties. The stats highlight this problem. For example, a recent survey found that only 45 percent [CM2] of respondents strongly agree that their employers care about their wellbeing.

But it’s not always about employers lacking compassion. Similar behaviour can manifest in any team member who is under stress. Gary McGaghey explains that burnout is common when employees struggle to meet deadlines or to work with those around them. Petty conflict, short tempers, and exposed nerves can all contribute to a lack of kindness. But, now we’ve seen how much of an impact COVID-19 has had on our families, friends, and colleagues, offering kindness and compassion in the workplace is now more important than ever.

Leaders Who Prioritise Kindness

Despite the challenges and pressures that come with leadership, many leaders have prioritised kindness in their roles and proven success as a result. Think legends like King Solomon, human rights activists like Desmond Tutu, and modern-day executives like Mary Barra, who many admire for her employee-centric approach to her role as the CEO of General Motors. Inspirational leaders like these have emphasised that consistent kindness, encouragement, and a genuine interest in employees’ mental health are not a sign of weakness or a sign of a leader who is relinquishing authority. Another example is New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has responded to criticisms[CM3]  that her empathetic nature makes her unassertive.

‘I totally rebel against that,’ she said. ‘I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.’

We often think of kindness as an innate quality – something that we offer naturally. But kindness is teachable. For example, Ritchie Davidson from the University of Wisconsin compares practising kindness to weight training, explaining that we can build our ‘compassion muscles’ by responding to others’ struggles with care and a desire to help.

Gary McGaghey notes that kindness is calming, contagious, and healing. We can’t overestimate its power. Acts of kindness help us release oxytocin (a hormone that regulates our emotions) and activate the part of the brain that makes us feel pleasure. That’s why Mayo Clinic encourages us to improve our health by setting goals to be kinder to others and express sincerely felt kindness to our co-workers[CM4] . Meanwhile, Psychology Today has found that kind employers can build morale, reduce absenteeism, and improve employee retention. Kind bosses may even help employees live longer [CM5] by reducing their stress levels, which is key to cardiovascular health.

Gary McGaghey’s Seven Tips to Lead With Kindness

The pandemic has reminded us to instil kindness and compassion in our workplace roles. But how can leaders best achieve this? Here, Gary McGaghey shares seven tips that business leaders can use to weave kindness and empathy into their workplace interactions.

  1. Check in with your team. It’s essential that your employees know you’re willing to help. Show them that you’re there for them when they need to discuss their worries, even if that means making yourself available outside of work hours.
  2. Listen to your team members. Listen carefully and avoid judgement. It’s okay if you’re not sure how to respond to your employees’ concerns right away. The most important thing is that you make space for others to tell you how they’re really doing. Even if your employees don’t want to share their worries in detail, it’s knowing they can that’s important.
  3. Ask your employees how you can help. Whether an employee simply needs you to validate their personal challenges, direct them to mental health resources, or create a support group, they need to know that you can – and will – help.
  4. Survey your employees to understand how they’re coping. For example, the MIT Sloan Management Review has analysed the results of surveys [CM6] that several companies used to monitor remote workers’ mental health over the COVID-19 lockdown. These companies found that the pandemic affected remote workers who live alone differently than remote workers who live with their families and have young children. You can use insights from surveys like these to implement changes that will help your team. For example, one company set up daily virtual coffee breaks for the employees who live alone. Other companies addressed the exhaustion that many workers who live with family faced while working from home. It’s important that leaders never make their teams feel they must regularly work extreme hours.
  5. Let your team know you know they’re doing their best. COVID-19-related budget cuts have left many employees working harder than ever. Many worry their jobs are at risk and work extreme hours to reduce the risk of making the redundancy list. Too many receive no recognition for this. Sincerely thank your team as often as you can.
  6. Reveal your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re honest about your weaknesses, your employees will know you’re not pretending to be someone you’re not. Being your authentic self is key to showing kindness, especially when you embrace the fact that other team members offer skills and/or characteristics that complement yours.
  7. Ask for your employees’ opinions. Fight the instinct to follow your own perspective during decision-making processes. Instead, see what others think. When you actively seek the opinions of people who disagree with you, they’ll feel valued. Rather than responding to others’ opinions with ‘yes but,’ try responding with ‘yes and’. Pixar calls this technique ‘plussing’[CM7] . The idea is to improve ideas without using judgemental language.

Kindness is up there with empathy and emotional intelligence when it comes to the most important soft skills for a leader. Now, post-pandemic, it’s arguably the most important. Kindness should be a priority for all managers and employees, but Gary McGaghey encourages CFOs and other senior managers in private equity companies, who are often under immense pressure, to pause and make sure they’re offering the support employees need.

Gary McGaghey considers kindness and authentic leadership the keys to building, nurturing, and leading great teams. Kindness is especially important when it comes to helping good team members become great team members. He reminds CFOs that having fun and showing kindness makes teams deliver their best performance. He also advises CFOs to embrace speed as the currency of success and not to get wrapped up in ‘what the spreadsheet says’. Instead, he advises CFOs to accept the fact that they’ll make mistakes when they have to move quickly. When this happens, correct the course by taking calculated risks to keep up with the demands of the role. Correcting mistakes doesn’t have to get in the way of the kindness you offer as a leader.

Learn more about Gary McGaghey.

About Gary McGaghey

In 2019, Gary McGaghey became the CFO of the €1.3bn end-to-end marketing production services group Williams Lea Tag. Here, he monitors and directs financial plans, expands the value of the private equity company’s holdings, and leads investment decision-making processes. Gary McGaghey has also held several non-executive and statutory executive director roles for listed and privately owned companies. He is currently also the non-executive director of Fitmedia UK, which has won awards for its children’s fitness analysis and testing solutions.

[CM1]https://www.qualtrics.com/blog/confronting-mental-health/

[CM2]https://www.gallup.com/workplace/297497/covid-employees-need-leaders-right.aspx

[CM3]https://anjaniamriit.com/the-barriers-women-face-in-leadership-and-business/

[CM4]https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-mindfulness-share-kindness-to-be-happier-and-healthier/

[CM5]https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/vitality/201807/can-being-kind-make-you-better-boss

[CM6]https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/how-to-help-employees-work-from-home-with-kids/

[CM7]https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/how-to-be-a-rebel-leader

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