Recently, the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine circulated a video meant to make its instructors aware of “student mistreatment.” With a minor-chord piano medley providing the soundtrack, viewers were asked to avoid putting students on the spot with questions, to minimize “cold and clinical” interactions, and to cultivate “safe” learning environments for the young residents.
It seems a little like something created by The Onion, but the video was sincere, and its message will be familiar to a lot of employers dealing with people in their 20s. For many who remember what business was like pre-Internet, millennials seem an appallingly sensitive lot, having been protected from the vagaries of the world by helicopter parents, trigger warnings and—to especially cynical critics—sheer narcissism. “Aren’t young people coddled?” is now as safe an icebreaker as, “Did you see last night’s Seinfeld?” would have been 20 years ago.
It’s a stereotypical view and, of course, an incomplete one. But there’s no doubt younger workers are changing the interpersonal dynamics of the modern workplace, much as they’ve already done in high schools and universities. And I have news for you, my fellow judgmental old people: That’s a good thing.
For decades—centuries—the archetype of the successful business person has been the sneering blowhard, unafraid to bark orders and excoriate the work of underlings. He (let’s be honest, it’s traditionally a he) leads with a charming mix of ego, hair-trigger temper and intimidation. The fictional Gordon Gekko is the poster boy, but real-world examples abound: Rupert Murdoch, Anna Wintour, Larry Ellison, Kevin O’Leary, Donald Trump. Steve Jobs, brilliant as he was, was an often vicious and tyrannical boss.
The influence of such titans has created the expectation that to be successful in business, one must be able to be, for lack of a better term, mean. Or, at least, one must be prepared to act that way. For decades, otherwise mild-mannered and amiable individuals have had to train themselves to behave differently at work: to be harder, colder, less polite. (You can actually take courses on this kind of thing.) In some workplaces, making a colleague cry is considered a sadistic rite of passage. In the culture of commerce, behaviour that would be inexcusable in pretty much any other context is not only tolerated, but rewarded.
To what end? What real benefits are conferred on a business when its leaders are nasty? Abusive behaviour sure doesn’t spur productivity: A 2006 Florida State University study of 700 employees in a variety of different roles found that those with abusive bosses were five times more likely to purposefully slow down or make errors than their peers, and nearly six times more likely to call in sick when they actually felt fine. Nor does it do much for employee morale: As Stanford organizational behaviour professor Robert Sutton wrote in his 2007 bestseller, The No Asshole Rule, brutish managers “infuriate, demean and damage their peers, superiors, underlings and, at times, clients and customers, too.”
The most progressive bosses today—the ones whose behaviour will be tomorrow’s status quo—are demanding without being discouraging, honest without being rude and confident without being cocky. There has been plenty of important research on each of these management qualities, such as Mark Murphy’s book Hundred Percenters on motivating employees to greatness; or ex-Googler Kim Scott’s “radical candour” approach to providing feedback; or the work of Brené Brown, whose landmark 2010 TED talk is called “The Power of Vulnerability.” Caring about people’s feelings doesn’t make managers airy-fairy pushovers; rather, such leaders recognize their job is to help people excel. And they produce exceptional results not in spite of their compassion and kindness, but because of it.
Yes, it can be irritating to hear our younger colleagues complain of hurt feelings. But millennials aren’t wrong to expect a kinder, gentler work environment. The rest of us are wrong for clinging to the useless and outdated notion that to thrive in business, you have to be an asshole.