I believe that in every interpersonal communication, leaders should err on the side of kindness. This pronouncement is seemingly simple but it takes courage to live — especially now.
We live in a world in which a host of issues are eating away at our connections with each other. Take lack of focus: When was the last time you had a conversation without one of the people involved checking their phone or multitasking? Or speed: We run from one thing to the next without reflecting on the human implications of what we just did.
But the challenge becomes harder when you consider that people may not want to be kind. Of those who felt strongly about a particular social or political issue, only 30% of people said they would help someone who held a different point of view on the latest Edelman Trust Barometer survey. As a result of political polarization, everything is becoming a political statement (think about masking coming out of the pandemic). Perhaps as a result of these factors, common incivility is rampant in the workplace.
From my four decades of working in government, business, and politics — in communications at the highest corporate levels, currently as executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer — I’ve found that great leadership is all about connecting with people by making them feel seen and heard. That means standing against all of these trends and impulses and instead practicing what I call “gracious communication.”
This article is one in a series on “Creative Resilience: Leading in an Age of Discontinuity,” the theme of the 15th annual Global Peter Drucker Forum. See the conference program here.
This involves small gestures and an overall demeanor that allow for connection. For a senior leader — as well as any aspiring leader — this kind of communication is important in day-to-day interactions as well as in big, difficult conversations. You’ll find yourself enjoying stronger relationships and a respected leadership presence, as well as more creativity, resilience, and, ultimately, stronger leadership.
Here are three ways to do it.
Break down defensiveness with graciousness.
Walking into an acrimonious situation is when I am at my kindest.
When I go to a tough environment such as a Senate hearing, or if I am being interrogated by a combative attorney, I always start by saying, “Thank you so much for inviting me here today.” I wear a smile when I say this, and I mean it. It shows that I’m here to listen and contribute, not to stonewall anyone. And that’s disarming: It lightens the mood and opens the ears. At the same time, it takes courage and shows your maturity. That allows for more creative, productive problem-solving.
To be clear, I’m not saying that there is no place for showing anger to someone. If they hurt you or your family, for example, anger is an appropriate response. But it’s not the most effective tool for opening minds and moving hearts. Anger shuts the other person down; kindness opens them up.
And, as a leader, others are always watching your communications, and if you are known to be someone who blows, you will be isolated from important negative news. An angry or volatile organizational culture makes it less likely that people will speak up about important risks or problems. That makes your organization less able to respond quickly to crises.
Give credit where credit is due.
People like to be seen and appreciated. Recognizing those who deserve it engenders enthusiasm, hard work, trust, and loyalty. I remember the thank-you cards I received from my bosses years later and I’ve made a practice of writing these for my team and giving them moments of recognition ever since.
Practicing gratitude also spurs my creativity: Reflecting on my interaction with someone after the fact often sparks an idea for another opportunity with them, or another way to continue the conversation. It helps me to slow down long enough for those ideas to emerge.
Giving recognition is as powerful for your peers as it is for those you lead. I sit on an executive committee and every time I see someone in the group recognized (a scientist who won a prestigious award, or a manufacturing person achieved a new safety standard), I circulate it to the rest of the group. I do this because I admire the people I work with, and honestly believe what I’m saying. But I also believe that it makes me, the credit-giver, look good too: It communicates that I have the maturity and self-confidence to appreciate someone else.
This is a surprising move because claiming credit is the big thing in the corporate world these days. Think about humblebragging: the trend in which someone bemoans how many horrible nights they stayed up late to finish an important project (the point for the audience being how important the project was and how big their role on it). Or posting on social media about how blessed or humbled they are to have achieved a huge promotion. It’s endless and nauseating, because the need to claim credit for everything is destructive and counterproductive in the end.
The urge to claim recognition can be particularly strong if someone has just taken credit for your idea or your work. But before you step in to correct the record, think twice. People are observant; they can often see who is doing the work. Staying silent in that moment, rather than rushing to say “No, I did it!” shows a lot about how confident you feel about yourself and can keep the door open for a connection with the other person.
During the pandemic, for example, my boss and I originated an idea with the other big pharmaceutical firms to create a pledge that we would all abide by certain high safety standards and refrain from cutting corners in our race to a vaccine. You can imagine my surprise when, at a conference in 2022, I heard someone from one of the other firms claiming credit. The hairs went up on the back of my neck, my hands clenched, and for a moment I thought about interrupting the conversation and angrily issuing a correction. But didn’t do it. I realized that if I had claimed my due credit I would have purposefully embarrassed someone else in public, and I would have cast doubt on the whole idea of us all being such good collaborators. I would have looked worse, and it cost me nothing to stay silent instead.
Of course, there are situations where you should raise your hand and take a bow, such as when you are leading a team that achieved a stretch goal (in which case, say “we”) or when your company reputation is at stake. In the end, giving credit to others can be more powerful for you than taking it.
Give the other party space and clarity.
No matter what conversation you want to have with someone, don’t catch them off their guard or off their game. Whether it’s an innocuous quick question or a serious piece of bad news, always ask if it’s a good time and try to give them a sense of what you want to discuss.
This gives your counterpart an opportunity to prepare themselves for any surprises or tough news that you need to share, and makes it clear that you are interested in listening to their response. It can also calm them down — they go from not knowing what to expect to understanding the lay of the land. It gives them a roadmap for your ramble.
This can be as simple as reaching out to a colleague and saying “Is now a good time to discuss our fall campaign?” (rather than just FaceTiming them at odd hours, which I used to do). It could be giving some emotional context for news that could be perceived in different ways.
For big issues this can require a little more preparation: I had something important to talk to my boss about the other week. I told him, “I’d really appreciate it if we could find a few minutes during the offsite to talk about this issue I’m having related to my team,” and sent him a few slides so he would know what it was about and knew to find me when he had 15 minutes, not two.
You won’t always have time to prepare, but there are still ways to give the other person space. If the need to push back on something or deliver bad news comes up in the moment in a conversation, you can say “lLet’s stop right there” and be candid. But if it is a group situation, if possible, wait until the meeting is over and then call them back. Let’s say they said something offensive. Give them a call and say, “You may not know how that landed,” and discuss it from there. Shaming people publicly is not a good idea, but trying to educate others in private is a great idea.
Whatever tactics you choose, the idea is not to burden the other person in your conversation, and instead to be outward focused — on the other person, not yourself. However hard that is, especially in today’s polarized and fast-paced world, it pays big dividends toward your relationships, your leadership, and your own well-being.