Leadership Lessons from Mr. Rogers – The Extraordinary Power of Connection and Kindness
Five months ago, the world turned upside down for us all. Leaders, trainers, employees — we have all felt the impact of COVID-19 in our daily work and lives. In the public sector and elsewhere, I have been working closely with groups that have had to pivot to a new and sometimes scary, virtual world. Leaders are struggling to support their employees, particularly the increased need for work-life balance while figuring out how best to support their organizations. There are no easy answers, of course, but there is one concept that I learned years ago, that I have seen work wonders.
Likeability and Kindness
Watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, I learned how to foster kindness through personal connections. I did not realize how very powerful it was until now. A 2011 study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman revealed that, out of 51,836 leaders, those rated as most likable and kind were also rated as most effective. In fact, there were only 27 who were rated in the bottom quartile for likability and the top quartile for leadership effectiveness.
Creating positive emotional connections can help leaders increase that likeability score. In Your Brain at Work, Dr. David Rock talks about how “studies show that the strongest emotion in a team can ripple out and drive everyone to resonate with the same emotion, without anyone consciously knowing this is happening.” He further relates that during times of change and uncertainty, leaders need to be mindful of how they manage their stress levels with their teams.
How can we continue making important connections virtually? One way is to make the best use of the tools for connection — Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or just picking up the phone. The next time you conduct a virtual meeting, picture yourself sitting face-to-face with attendees. Provide ample opportunities to engage through chat, whiteboards, and breakout rooms and include icebreaker activities, even if your attendees already know one another. Adding a short poll unrelated to the agenda can foster connections and positive affect.
Trust and Kindness
An atmosphere of trust also fosters connection. People need to trust that you have their success and best interest in mind. When operating remotely, leaders need to put themselves in their employees’ shoes and litmus test messages before conveying them. Mr. Rogers fostered trust by showing his vulnerable side. Despite the actual distance between them, Mr. Rogers’ TV viewers could both relate to and trust him.
One oft-repeated quote of Mr. Rogers is, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” What does that mean for us? According to the Mayo Clinic, “Kindness can positively change your brain. Being kind boosts serotonin and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters in the brain that give you feelings of satisfaction and wellbeing and cause the pleasure/reward centers in your brain to light up. Endorphins, which are your body’s natural pain killer, also can be released.”
Incorporating the question of “How am I going to practice kindness with my colleagues and employees?” into your day can be helpful. Keeping a journal, paper-based or digital, can be useful for recording your answers and notable results.
In addition to how you treat other people, don’t forget to extend kindness to yourself. Negative self-talk is a surefire way to begin a vicious cycle: you feel bad and, in turn, are more likely to act unkindly to others. Kindness, on the other hand, reduces anxiety and stress. If we can do that for ourselves, we will be far more likely to be able to use the same tool when interacting with others.
As we move forward into a new fiscal year, seek out ways to harness the power of connection and kindness to keep your organization vibrant.
Alison French is Managing Director of Alto Solutions, LLC, and a Management Concepts Instructor. She employs brain science in her approach to organizational change, communications, and leadership. An experienced facilitator, trainer, and coach, Alison has worked with clients within the government, education, nonprofit, and private sectors for more than 20 years, helping them improve their leadership and engagement by better understanding the connections between their people and within their brains. Alison holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Communication from Cornell University and an MBA from the Kogod School of Business at American University. Her most recent workshops, Won’t You Be My Trainer and Won’t You Be My Manager, are based on the teachings of Mr. Rogers.