For much of my working life, compassionate and caring leadership was so rare that whenever I encountered it, I thought I was being gamed. I was suspicious of it.


I worked in newsrooms, a high-pressure environment that seems to attract a high percentage of leaders without emotional maturity. In one of my first jobs, for example, an editor showed his displeasure with a story by printing it and blowing his nose into it. At another newsroom, a senior editor who was feuding with a colleague procured a pig’s head from a Brazilian restaurant and got a reporter to gift wrap it and leave it on her rival’s desk. Perhaps even more shocking, she wasn’t fired or demoted — an inaction noted by the entire newsroom. The movie Horrible Bosses for some looks more like a documentary than a comedy.


More quotidian disappointments were plentiful, too. There were the last-minute demands to work late or on weekends, followed by disapproving faces when you filed for the overtime you deserved. There were editors who delighted in openly talking trash about reporters behind their backs. There were public upbraidings for work that missed the mark, while praise got delivered in private. It was a festival of demoralization without end, and it was the norm. It’s a costly norm, too. Workplaces like that cost American employers $44.6 billion in hiring costs every year, while good and productive employees flee.


Every now and then, I’d encounter a supervisor who knew how to encourage me and help me improve my work, and I’d cling to someone like that for as long as I could. But those rare leaders would get worn down and less effective over time, like an old bar of soap.


Imagine my surprise — and delight — at my next two jobs, where compassion and kindness were the rule, not the exception to it. My first full-time job post-journalism included leading a team of case investigators and contact tracers during the pandemic — possibly even more high-pressure than a newsroom. Yet my own supervisors managed to be both demanding and caring. They understood the fear, confusion and hostility we encountered every day, and instead of blaming us for the times we couldn’t get people to take this strange, new virus seriously, they helped us strategize how to do it better and held us up when times were bleak. 


When that job ran its course, I landed here — another place where mistakes are examined to learn lessons instead of to denigrate someone, and where every success is seen as a win for the team. 


It should be no surprise that both of these places are high-performing. Bullying and aggression are not motivators and don’t lead to success. If anything, they inhibit it. Top performers leave. Those who stay learn not to take risks. Creativity and innovation suffer as workers learn to do what’s safe and survive another day.


But workplaces where leaders lift the team up are productive. Celebrating an ambitious attempt that falls flat encourages a team to take another chance. A brainstorming session where you never hear someone mutter, “Oh how stupid,” allows unconventional ideas to germinate and grow. 


Work is not the opposite of fun. Misery is. Work and fun can coexist, and work that includes moments of lightness, an atmosphere of support and a commitment to finding ways to help each other is productive work. A workplace like that is more likely to function as a team. In cold, bottom-line terms, compassion and care are good for business.