Does it Pay to Just Be Nice?

As organizations brainstorm innovative ways to increase worker productivity without losing valuable talent in the tight labor market, new research suggests one strategy could be simple, yet effective: Be compassionate.

In a study led by Binghamton University, researchers studied 200 full-time U.S. employees and 1,000 members of the Taiwanese military to explore how different management styles impacted subordinates’ performance. The research found that the benevolence-dominant leadership style–in which a superior has a primary focus on his or her subordinates’ wellbeing–“almost always” positively affected job performance. Equally successful was the classical paternalistic style, which combines authoritarianism and benevolence, equating task completion and worker wellbeing.

The most unsuccessful style was authoritarianism-dominant, in which a leader prioritizes his or her full control over subordinates, with a heavy emphasis on task completion and little thought to worker wellbeing. In situations in which this style was employed, worker productively was almost always negatively impacted, researchers found.

Interestingly, the results were the same across both population groups, despite cultural differences.

That consistency “suggests that the effectiveness of paternalistic leadership may be more broad-based than previously thought, and it may be all about how people respond to leaders and not about where they live or the type of work they do,” said lead researcher Chou-Yu Tsai, an assistant professor of management at Binghamton University’s School of Management.

As organizations increasingly move away from thinking about their employees as resources to recognizing their individual contributions–and HR titles subsequently evolve–the new research reinforces the importance of that transition.

“Subordinates and employees are not tools or machines that you can just use. They are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect,” Tsai said.

Effective leaders, he said, should simultaneously focus on employees’ wellbeing and clearly communicate expectations about their responsibilities and organizational priorities. He likened this approach to one of the earliest leader-follower relationships we encounter: that of a parent and child.

“This is a work-based version of ‘tough love,’ often seen in parent-child relationships,” he said.

Shelley Dionne, professor and associate dean of the School of Management, noted that practicing such an approach can be motivating for the worker–and ultimately benefit the organization.

“While the importance of establishing structure and setting expectations is important leaders, and arguably parents, help and guidance from the leader in developing social ties and support networks for a follower can be a powerful factor in their job performance.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at