A dynamic in my professional life I’ve noticed as my career progresses and responsibilities expand is the marginalization of kindness. It’s not that I believe as someone rises through the ranks that they become a more aggressive person, but that the qualities necessary to do so reward assertiveness. As a person becomes busier in their job, time becomes scarce. Kindness costs time, assertion gets results. My worry is the race to the bottom this can create, where we show respect to assertive, aggressive, loud types, and disrespect to those who treat us kindly.
I’ll use an example.
Manager A sends an email telling the IT department they need to deliver results by the end of the month, that a delay will cost the firm money, and that he will escalate as necessary if he doesn’t see his project get priority.
Manager B is accountable for a project with comparable materiality as manager A. He sends a kindly worded email to the IT department asking for a status update on a project, and a timeframe for when they should expect the work to be complete.
Which manager do you think the IT department is going to bend over backwards for? As a result, Manager A will succeed and his boss will reward him over Manager B who will come up short if for no other reason than because he fell down the queue compared to Manager A. So A becomes wealthier, receives more promotions, and signals to everyone else that his behaviour should be emulated if you want to succeed.
As a result, the corporate culture can become more aggressive and antagonistic over time as too many Type-A personalities seed the ranks.
The same assertiveness used by Manager A can be used against him. The kindness of Manager B can be rewarded. In the example, it takes a true leader in the IT department to recognize that both managers projects have equal materiality, and that the manager who demonstrated better respect for the department’s time, showed appreciation and treated others like human beings instead of resources, should receive priority.
What does this have to do with writing?
The concept is comparable to the idea of quiet strength, also known as the Quiet One trope. A master of martial arts rarely has to use their talents. In books we marvel at the characters who others know not to mess with. The few times they speak, their words carry extra weight. The question is why do they become this way. What was their character arc? What has to happen to understand the importance of demonstrating kindness, to listen to those who show us respect, and to stand up against those who prioritize themselves everyone else.
On the one hand, it’s a useful personal survival tool. Others knowing of their power keeps those others from attempting shows of dominance, reducing the chance of violence. Even if they would win the fight, a physical or verbal confrontation still leaves a risk of being wounded, so better to not engage at all. In stories, this can build terrific tension (since any good story is ultimately about conflict). In the workplace it can succeed at doing just the opposite.
On the other hand, it creates a positive environment around that person where good behavior is rewarded and anti-social behavior is discouraged. Thus, there’s a duality. Courage to resist the aggressor, and respect for those who demonstrate kindness. It’s not easy to build this environment. Failing to do so however is why so many business fail under the weight of their own success.