For Leaders, Decency Is Just as Important as Intelligence

By Bill Boulding
November 5, 2020

To be successful, business leaders must possess a combination of two familiar attributes — intellect and emotional intelligence — and one that I believe has yet to be adequately recognized and elevated: decency.

A decency quotient, or DQ, goes a step further than an EQ — the awareness of emotions, both others’ and your own. DQ implies a person has not only empathy for employees and colleagues but also the genuine desire to care for them. DQ means wanting something positive for everyone in the workplace and ensuring everyone feels respected and valued.

Ajay Banga, the CEO of Mastercard, was the first person to tell me about DQ, in a talk in front of our students at Duke. He said, “If you can bring your decency quotient to work every day, you will make the company a lot of fun for people — and people will enjoy being there and doing the right thing.”

Recently I shared a stage with Bank of America’s CEO, Brian Moynihan, for another event at Duke. I asked a question that elicited a few gasps from the audience but didn’t throw him one bit: How did Bank of America reduce head count by almost 100,000 since he became CEO, without a major public outcry?

Moynihan explained that Bank of America had about 5 million mobile users when he became CEO in 2010. Now, it has more like 26 million. Innovation in technology made a reduction in labor inevitable. Moynihan said, “Then the question is, ‘How do you do it?’”

He and his team decided to let attrition be their friend. Over several years this has allowed the firm to make important changes when it does have to lay people off. For example, cost savings allowed Bank of America to increase its severance pay to a year and a half for employees who have been with the company many years, and have also allowed it to increase outplacement programs. Further, these savings helped boost employee benefits like parental leave, bereavement leave, counseling support and fertility and adoption resources and support.

Because decency was the guiding principle, their workers and customers felt supported and cared for — even during such a dramatic reduction of the workforce. The very things that create distrust, like job losses, were handled in a more humane way.

Technology, innovation and automation are changing the very nature of work. Instead of letting them fracture us, we can use decency to find ways to move forward without leaving anyone behind. As leaders who are driven by decency innovate, they don’t consider just what’s being created; they consider what’s being destroyed. Innovation becomes about not just new solutions but also about helping those being displaced.

If business can become more intentional about decency, I believe it can become a healing force our world so badly needs. It can begin to rebuild the trust that corporations have lost with employees and customers. It can be the model for how people who are very different come together to work with common purpose. But for decency to win the day, DQ must be recognized as an essential quality in leadership.


Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.



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