In recent years, people discussing business and management have been unable to avoid the idea of benevolence. And some have even come to find it annoying, considering it clunky and devoid of meaning at best, and excessively formal and far removed from the realities of professional life at worst.
So before we get bogged down and start feeling the opposite of benevolent, let’s take a closer look. Where does the word come from? How can we define it? What’s the theory behind it? How can we put it into practice?
Etymology: benevolentia or bona vigilantia
Linguists aren’t in complete agreement about the origin of the word benevolence. Some trace it back to the Latin word benevolentia, which means “a favorable disposition towards other people”. Charles Dickens often included a benevolent character in his novels who would enter the story to rescue the main character. Benevolence is a mix of generosity, commitment and volunteerism. The volunteering idea in benevolence is important, and that’s evidenced in the Latin phrase captatio benevolentia, which is about bringing together all the good deeds we do to win favor from an audience. The expression is still used today when passing comment on the actions of a political figure or a leader and assessing their ability to rally people without force. In short, inspiring benevolence is an act of leadership!
But what about showing benevolence? Let’s turn back to the linguists who trace the term back to bona vigilantia. This word belongs in a lexical field alongside attention, precaution, trust, even care. A benevolent person is someone who watches over others, is concerned about their health and/or takes steps to ensure they are healthy.
Leaving the dictionary behind and casting an eye on management manuals, benevolence belongs under the same umbrella as a leader’s emotional intelligence and people skills.
Whatever the word’s etymology, the essence of benevolence is quite simply the ability to show kindness, while being kind.
Benevolence in business management
Benevolence made its début in managerial literature in the same wave as positive psychology, at the turn of the 21st century. The business world was in a mess: sky-high unemployment, endemic professional unease, overwhelming organizational processes, demotivation and extreme stress across the board, which could lead individuals to long-term illness or even the desire to put a permanent end to their troubles.
Management methods that use pressure or fear, rigid verticality, the quest for profit at any cost, fractured the system.
There was no choice but to make a U-turn. Bosses had to stop being authoritative, leaders had to learn how to engage; employees were no longer to be squeezed like lemons but provided with suitable working conditions so they could develop their professional skills and move forward; the quest for profit no longer had to be the single focus for companies, which from that point needed to start targeting both economic and social performance. A corporate attitude no longer meant showing loyalty and controlling people but building and nurturing a corporate culture that fostered pride in being part of a team, and the sincere desire of each individual to become an ambassador for the values of the organization.
Leadership as a whole came into the line of fire: it needed to change tack and managers had to start developing soft skills. Benevolence is one of these skills. It’s the ability to trust and be trustworthy, to show empathy, it’s about having an awareness of biases and an inclusive attitude, showing respect for differences and a caring attitude to each person’s unique situation, it’s about well-balanced management of tension and conflict, and granting the right to make mistakes…
Benevolence in practice
These are wonderful, consensual values. But how can you show benevolence in practical terms? And how can you combine it with the demands of a business and its stakeholders (customers, in particular) while allowing each individual to progress or even push themselves further than they think they can go?
First, by clarifying what benevolence really means in the workplace, and above all what it doesn’t mean. Benevolence is not simply letting everyone do whatever they want, whenever they want. It is about taking each person’s aspirations into account and assigning them well-suited tasks while encouraging them to overcome the obstacles that cause them to veer away from others. Benevolence is not about complimenting and thanking people while ignoring what isn’t going well; it is about knowing how to express gratitude effectively when that gratitude is justified, but it also means providing tactful feedback so that people who have not met expectations can identify where they can improve and pinpoint what they need to do so that they achieve their goals next time. Benevolence is not about giving preferential treatment to people with complex personal situations; it’s about giving flexibility to everyone, while drawing focus to specific group experiences. Benevolence does not mean wanting to bring your version of happiness to others based on your own vision; it is about accepting other people’s emotions and validating them, while asking that people express themselves in a way that does not make others uncomfortable.
From that premise, benevolence in practice is leadership that involves taking human needs into account, while ensuring that everyone cooperates in a group project. In other words, it means adopting an open attitude and looking for solutions so that individuals can behave to the best of their ability. And when a leader manages to set a great example, benevolence is hugely contagious!
Why can benevolence sometimes arouse suspicion?
Constant benevolence can set some people’s teeth on edge. What’s the first reason people might be wary? They wonder what they’ll have to do in return. You’re supposed to show benevolence, but what guarantee do you have that someone will do the same for you? Just like empathy, benevolence is something of a gamble: you can’t just sit there like a lemon waiting for someone else to make the first move. Someone has to get the ball rolling! If you know that benevolence can reap positive rewards, why don’t you go first?
Another reason for being benevolent: it might put a little oil on troubled waters. Benevolence doesn’t prevent disagreements, tension or even anger. But it can regulate how people express themselves in those situations: it’s an effective way of eliminating pressure and intimidation tactics, passive-aggressive behavior, cowardly tricks, nasty sarcasm and much more.
All right, but doesn’t that take a little spice out of life? Doesn’t all that mean becoming excessively politically correct, trying to create a fantasy world full of unicorns and rainbows? There’s the crux of the cultural issue surrounding benevolence: what lies behind our appetite for hostility, denigration, superiority? Perhaps the first step on the path to benevolence should be to ask ourselves what we’re frightened of losing (power, bearings, critical thinking, freedom etc.) if we decide to stop judging, mistrusting, putting up barriers between ourselves and those who are “different”… Because sincere benevolence can only exist when we really think about our own personal relationship with the world: the ecology of relationships.
Marie Donzel, for the EVE webmagazine. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson