Poor leadership driving top talent out

People don’t quit a job, they quit their boss. Employees are most likely to seek alternative employment when the boss acts like a jerk, according to leadership consultant Kyle M.K.

Kyle founded his consulting business, The Heart Company, six years ago to help companies eliminate toxic behavior and develop more constructive work environments. After working with a variety of companies and industries — including Ritz Carlton and Uber — Kyle noticed companies using an empathetic leadership style had a more satisfied and productive workforce.

Kyle’s legal name is Kyle Kirchhoff, but he writes under — and is professionally known as — Kyle M.K. He sat down with Employee Benefit News to discuss his upcoming book, “The Economics of Emotion,” which shares how HR professionals can help build a corporate culture built on empathy and respect.

EBN: Why did you focus on emotions in the workplace?

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Kyle: There aren’t a lot of books or resources that show leaders how to recognize and how to work with certain emotions. There are plenty of books about emotional intelligence, but not many for a business minded person and how it affects us in the workplace.

And people usually leave a job because of how they feel — usually about their boss. There was a time when bosses could get away with certain behaviors because they were seen as “brilliant jerks.” Meanness was seen as a tradeoff for their smarts. But we’re seeing a shift away from that mindset as companies become more concerned with creating a positive work environment for employees.

EBN: Interesting, any examples of “brilliant jerks”?

Kyle: The one people are most familiar with is Steve Jobs in the 1970s and 1980s. People who worked at Apple were genuinely afraid of him, but he got away with his behavior because he was so smart. But then he got fired from his own company and was forced to pursue different options. When the opportunity came for him to return to Apple in the 90s, people said he wasn’t as mean as they remembered, and seemed to have a better head on his shoulders. I think he learned his lesson and didn’t want to mess it up.

EBN: So what kind of leader creates the best work environment?

Kyle: An emotionally intelligent leader. In terms of actual famous CEOs that fall within these lines, the new Uber CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi and the former LinkedIn CEO, Reid Hoffman, are both known to be empathetic. They’re someone who recognizes emotion in themselves and how it affects their communication style. It means they’re able to recognize emotion in others to see what they’re feeling. They know how to talk to people in a way that encourages their best work.

EBN: How do leaders exercise emotional intelligence at work?

Kyle: One of the best things I’ve learned to become emotionally intelligent is to get to know someone as their personal self, not just their work self. People who aren’t happy in their personal lives don’t perform well at work. If I know someone is having a rough time with their family I know why they haven’t been productive lately. If I didn’t know that I would just say they’re a bad employee. But good communication can help address these issues.

EBN: What does this mean for HR? How do they get involved?

Kyle: The biggest resource HR has is the ability to encourage feedback throughout the company on every level. Sometimes it takes a while, but building a culture of feedback makes people feel more comfortable with speaking up. A lot of people are afraid to speak up at work because they’re afraid they’re going to lose the opportunity to make money — money drives everything in our lives. Create a method for the proper way to give feedback so employees don’t just blurt it out during meetings — that’s not appropriate. Communication gives companies an opportunity to address problems and gauge what workers feel they need in order to be successful.

EBN: Do you have any advice on how to do this effectively?

Kyle: Don’t email online surveys, it’s cold and impersonal, and people don’t answer them honestly. Even if the survey says it’s anonymous, there’s always the fear that it really isn’t. Instead, have individual sit down meetings or phone conversations with employees.

But HR has to be as emotionally intelligent as any leader. They have to understand that when employees walk into a room with them they’re afraid of speaking their minds. You need to explain from the get go that nothing they say leaves the room, this is a place to express your feelings — if you feel strongly about something, make it known. If HR puts in the effort to make workers comfortable, you’ll get a lot of valuable feedback.

EBN: How does HR address complaints if they’re anonymous?

Kyle: I have a great example from my own personal experience. There was a situation where I had to work under someone that I ended up reporting to HR.

I was hired under a temporary contract to work for a gentleman who was hired to run a department. I was hired to help him, but he thought I was there to take his job and the position he was going for. One of the first meetings I had with him he nearly threatened me. He said, “If you get in my way, things will be very different for your career.”

My next meeting with HR I said the guy clearly doesn’t know why I’m here, I think he feels threatened and didn’t handle it well. The head of HR said let me talk to his boss. But I told her my contract just started and I don’t want this situation to ruin my relationship with him. She said I’m going to tell his boss what happened and ask him to communicate with this guy about why you’re here and talk to him about his emotions about why you’re here. They had the conversation without mentioning my feedback. Over the next few months he was so helpful to me and he actually apologized for his earlier behavior. HR handled the situation so we both felt secure.

EBN: Why should companies make an effort to be emotionally intelligent?

Kyle: Because of the internet and social media, companies have a lot of equity in how they treat others. People aren’t afraid of speaking up on digital platforms. Negative comments can hurt your company’s chances of acquiring promising new talent, but they can also be a great resource for change.

If you’re an HR pro and you see on Glassdoor that the majority of former employees say your company has a toxic work environment, obviously there’s a problem. People who get fired usually don’t post on that site. Negative reviews are from people who worked there and recognized it was bad fit for them. They’re trying to protect future versions of themselves from wasting their time.

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