To paraphrase Niccolò Machiavelli, it’s better to be feared than to be loved, if one cannot be both. Five centuries later, that philosophy persists in parts of the security world. Historically drawn from law enforcement or the military, many corporate security leaders transferred their intimidating command-and-control approach to the private sector. Being too nice could get you labeled “soft” or “weak.”
Perhaps the one exception to this rule in the United States is the interlude we are in now, the five or so weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, where everyone is expected to be grateful and pleasant at minimum. What if that could be the case year round?
Newer leadership principles that prize attributes such as empathy have eroded the old hard-line approach to management somewhat. But plenty of managers and leaders still warily eye colleagues who seem too friendly or upbeat.
Witness some of the backlash from an initiative called The Kindness Games, in which practitioners of security and other fields publicly praise colleagues, notably in videos posted on LinkedIn. (Full disclosure: I participate in The Kindness Games, having posted 40 videos or so myself.) No one has said a single negative thing to me about my posts (except for the occasional joke about how colleagues can’t escape my face on LinkedIn), but others have been warned that such behavior is bad for their career. And most of those cautioned, from what I have heard, have been young women.
Perhaps it’s the stereotype that young women are eager to please in a male-dominated profession, or that they will be seen as too irresolute to deal with difficult situations such as angry employees or underperforming direct reports.
Kelsey Carnell, one of the founders of The Kindness Games and a member of the security indsutry, has faced criticism for her buoyant personality. “People ask whether you’re forsaking your job or they think that you are being insincere to make a sale,” she says. “There’s a whole connotation that kindness is sunshine, rainbows and unicorns, and that it is fake.” But for her, an outgoing, positive attitude represents a major part of her so-called “authentic self.”
Carnell knows of two female colleagues whose bosses advised them not to partake in the games. They took that admonition to heart for fear of their jobs.
Young professionals of all genders have been asked rhetorically, “Do you really want to be known as a kind security professional?” says Meta's Head of Global Security Tim Wenzel, another member of the group that introduced the games. “The implication is that if you value your career, you’ll stop.”
A third cofounder, risk management consultant Lee Oughton, worries about a profession that drives out budding superstars. “You shouldn’t be demoralizing your talent,” he warns. “It infuses a narcissistic and toxic environment.”
Oughton adds that by muzzling kindness, security businesses are passing up revenue and security departments are depriving themselves of an effective tool. For example, Oughton notes that Carnell’s personality has
helped make her the top salesperson in her region. And Wenzel says that kindness and empathy during the termination process make the departing employee feel much less aggrieved, reducing the potential for violence and helping departing employees feel they’ve been treated respectfully.
“Kindness is not fluffy,” Wenzel insists. “We need to manage situations by looking at how can we serve people with empathy.”
And The Kindness Games is already expanding beyond its roots in the security field, which the founders see as an antidote to today’s toxicity and culture wars. “We are in the middle of an ‘ideological Hunger Games,’” Wenzel contends. “Kindness transcends that. The philosophy of leading with kindness is game changing for anyone in the professional world.”
Otherwise, in this time of The Great Resignation, as the world’s workers reconsider their priorities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, you risk losing your burgeoning talent to organizations that will listen to their voices.
In an ideological Hunger Games, only Machiavelli wins.