What lies behind admonitions to be kind?

There was recently a conversation on a list that I mostly lurk on about the relationship between kindness and leadership. General consensus was that kindness is an essential aspect of leadership and should be cultivated. I took issue with this suggestion.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have anything against kindness as a general practice. And as a lazy and lapsed practitioner of insight meditation, I recognize the great value in cultivating compassion in ourselves and our society. The world would be a much better place if we all practiced more compassion.

The problem I have with the appeal to “kindness” is that it tends to express itself in highly gendered (and other discriminatory) ways. In her contribution to the conversation, Chris Bourg emphasized the importance of looking at research on the topic and linked to an article entitled “The Dynamics of Warmth and Competence Judgments, and Their Outcomes in Organizations” (sorry, it’s paywalled).1 The authors equate warmth with friendliness, trustworthiness, empathy, and kindness; and competence with intelligence, power, efficacy, and skill. According to their research, judgements about these two personal qualities–warmth and competence–tend to be stereotyped and negatively correlated to each other:

Warmth and competence represent the central dimensions of group stereotypes, the majority of which are ambivalent – characterizing groups as warm but incompetent (e.g., older people, working mothers) or competent but cold (e.g., “model minorities,” female leaders), in turn eliciting ambivalent feelings (i.e., pity and envy, respectively) and actions toward members of those groups. (p. 73)

You would think, at the very least, that those groups who are expected “naturally” to be most kind would benefit from the inclusion of kindness as a job requirement. But, alas, women get the short end of that stick as well:

Stereotypes characterize women as generally warmer than men; therefore one might expect that adding warmth as a job qualification would favor female candidates. Instead, however, by demonstrating their competence, women elicit lower warmth evaluations in a way that men who demonstrate competence do not. When warmth becomes a legitimate evaluation criterion, the higher standard women are held to on this dimension can undermine their chances. (p. 77)

This point is particularly interesting to me, as I work in a highly gendered, “helping profession” where, from my experience, the expectation is that warmth and kindness will prevail. (To say nothing of the expectation that we–mostly women–librarians will always be available to patrons at their convenience, regardless of our actual availability; I’ve received requests for reference help when I was shopping for diner in the grocery store.)

With these issues in mind I replied to the list:

I’m particularly concerned about perceptions about individuals’ expression of emotion, “EI,” competence, and leadership being strongly (and negatively) influenced by stereotypes. The authors [of The Dynamics of Warmth and Competence Judgments article] confirm as much:

Warmth and competence represent the central dimensions of group stereotypes, the majority of which are ambivalent – characterizing groups as warm but incompetent (e.g., older people, working mothers) or competent but cold (e.g., “model minorities,” female leaders), in turn eliciting ambivalent feelings (i.e., pity and envy, respectively) and actions toward members of those groups. (p. 73)

Which is why women are often counseled to ask for raises (or other perks) differently than men, lest their expression of competence and self-confidence be perceived negatively (whereas the same traits in men would likely be perceived positively). Women are encouraged to sound more “kind” when they ask for things they deserve (e.g., “make it sound like you’re asking for the team rather than for yourself”).2 I personally find this kind of advice both very realistic and oppressively sexist. I’m probably not the only woman who does.

So when we talk about kindness I wonder about things like:

  • Who is expressing the kindness (gender, race, ethnicity, able-bodied or no, parent or no, etc.)?
  • What are society’s typical expectations and stereotypes about how each of these groups may, do, or may not express kindness?
  • Are there different ways that people of different genders, races, ethnic groups, cultural backgrounds, classes, etc. express kindness? And are there things that one group thinks are kind and other groups might find offensive (e.g., touching, asking more personal questions)?
  • What do we mean by “kindness” anyway? Is this term a proxy for other things (like fairness, inquisitiveness, smiling a lot, gift giving, baking cookies, etc.?)

All of those things are cultural. So to say that expressing something labeled by some people as “kindness” is an unmitigated good and is a required component of good leadership might lead us down paths that are actually unproductive for certain people (both leaders and staff).

I wrote a blog post yesterday suggesting other ways to create a positive work environment and support staff to do their best. While I strive to practice compassion (and hope one day to experience equanimity!), I will continue to resist admonitions to adopt ostensibly positive behaviors and mindsets without examining the cultural contexts in which this advice is given, who is affected by it, and how.

  1. Cuddy, Amy J. C., Peter Glick, and Anna Beninger. “The Dynamics of Warmth and Competence Judgments, and Their Outcomes in Organizations.” Research in Organizational Behavior 31 (2011): 73–98.
  2. While not offered in my original post, which I wrote rather quickly, here is some typical advice for women who negotiate: don’t be threatening, legitimize your request: Moving Past Gender Barriers to Negotiate a Raise; show that you have a “communal” orientation: Why Women Must Ask (The Right Way): Negotiation Advice From Stanford’s Margaret A. Neale