Interview with Bonnie Hayden Cheng: Embracing Kind Leadership In the Workplace

June 30, 2024

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Have you ever found yourself struggling in a work environment, wondering if you’re meant to be there?


Maybe you’re unsure if your kindness and empathy belongs in the workplace that you’re in? Or if kindness belongs in leadership and successful companies at all?


Dr Bonnie Hayden Cheng is an Organisational Psychologist, Associate Professor of Management and MBA programme director at the Hong Kong University Business school.


Bonnie is super passionate about corporate wellness and holds a unique position designing and implementing cutting edge, research backed solutions to help companies deliver impact on real world challenges to create awesome corporate cultures where people thrive.


Her research is dedicated to helping employees achieve and maintain wellbeing in the workplace. This includes understanding how and when workplace anxiety can enhance performance, recovering from daily job demands and maintaining proactivity in the workplace. 


Bonnie’s body of work is really about bringing humanity back into the workplace. And so if you find that you can’t bring your humaneness to work, and you struggle with your mental health, your leadership style, and you’re not sure how to best show up at work, then this episode is for you. 


In this week’s episode of The Aligned Achiever Podcast with Bonnie Cheng, Bonnie shares more about the return of kindness, why kindness matters, her journey to becoming an Organisational Psychologist, and focussing on a core purpose and passion to navigate your career journey.y




In this Episode We Explore:

  • The mental health continuum and emotional fitness in the workplace
  • The impact of kindness on leadership and organisational success
  • Her book: The Return on Kindness (How kind leadership wins talent, earns loyalty and builds successful companies)¬†
  • Cultivating kindness in the leadership matrix and bringing together kindness and toughness
  • Bonnie‚Äôs career journey that led her to Organisational Psychology


Resources Mentioned:


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Siobhan Barnes  

Have you ever had to deal with a difficult boss or find yourself struggling in a work environment where you’re just not sure if you’re meant to be maybe you identify as someone who is kind and empathetic and not sure if those qualities are actually suited to your workplace? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you’re in for a treat. Because today on the podcast, I’m interviewing Dr. Bonnie Haden Chang.

Bonnie is super passionate about corporate wellness and the ECE of environmental social governance. She holds a unique position designing and implementing cutting edge research backed solutions to help companies deliver impact on real world challenges to create awesome corporate cultures where people thrive. She is an associate professor of management and MBA programme director of Hong Kong University Business School having received her PhD from the Rotman School of Management in the University of Toronto.

Her research is dedicated to helping employees achieve and maintain wellbeing in the workplace. This includes understanding how and when workplace anxiety can enhance performance, recovering from daily job demands and maintaining proactivity in the workplace. She has been published in journals such as the Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Her research has also been featured in leading media sources such as The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The New York Times, and Harvard Business Review.

I asked Bonnie onto the show because I think she has an incredible body of work. And I recently read her book, The Return on Kindness: How Kind Leadership Wins Talent, Earns Loyalty, and Builds Successful Companies. 


Bonnie’s body of work is really about bringing the humanity back into the workplace. And so if you find that you can’t bring your humaneness to work, and you struggle with your mental health, your leadership style, and you’re not sure how to best show up at work, then this episode is for you.


She shares more about the return on kindness, why kindness matters, and also shares her own journey to becoming an Organisational Psychologist and how she came to doing this work today. It’s an amazing episode, and I hope you really enjoy it. Let’s dive in.

So hello, and welcome. Bonnie welcome to the podcast. So happy to have you on.

Bonnie Cheng 

Hello. I’m thrilled to be here.

Siobhan Barnes

I’m really, really excited. Oftentimes, when I think about asking guests onto the show, I’m really interested in two things. Number one, the person so you and I’m so fascinated by you and your journey as an Organisational Psychologist, but equally your body of work and the amazing work that you do and the research that you do, because obviously, these topics around mental health and the social side of ESG are super, super important. I recently saw you speak at a DEI Summit here in Hong Kong, and you were on a panel talking about mental health and how to help talent thrive through emotional fitness.


I’m curious if we can start there actually, what is it about this mental health and the “S” in ESG, especially as it relates to the workplace that interests you?


Bonnie Cheng 

Thank you, first of all, for those kind words. I’m really happy to be here talking to you and talking about this topic.

So I think my interest in kind of mental health was really a broader perspective. I think. I like to kind of focus more on wellness, especially as it relates to the workplace. And especially when we think about how wellness is multi dimensional. Mental health is, of course, something that is increasingly growing in importance when we think about the workplace, but it’s always been something we’ve all had to deal with. And mental health is really just one facet of our overall health and well being.

And then when you think about all of the dimensions of wellness, right physical, there’s emotional, there’s psychological, there’s social, cognitive, environmental, financial, and so on all of them effect and are effected by each other. So it really doesn’t make sense to isolate one, although, of course, you know, there’s different levels of interest. When you think about different companies in different industries.

When we hone in on mental health, most people also just tend to focus on mental illness. Right? But I think the kind of flip side of that if you think of mental health being on a continuum, mental fortitude is, you know, right on the other side of that, so I think the implication really is, you know, it’s important as organisations to think about corporate wellness and to promote initiatives that not just prevent mental ill health, or that focus on cure, right, curing those who are suffering from depression, or burnout, or physical illness that results from, you know, mental health issues, but also to focus on promoting mental well being, right, promoting, thriving, flourishing, happiness, all of these things that kind of make up the joys of life, and also our lives. That’s, you know, the hours that are spent at work.

Siobhan Barnes

And it’s true, we spend so many hours at work, and I have the great joy of working with women on that and talking about work and those challenges. And I’ll tell you that mental health well being comes up as really, really important because you can’t perform or enjoy your job and be present, be a leader if you’re suffering.

So I’m so happy to hear that you’re speaking about this topic and looking at it not just as something to cure or something to prevent, but actually to be proactive to see how companies and its employees can thrive. So taking a bigger, broader picture, because you said mental health is one piece, right? There’s the emotional, the cognitive, there’s the environmental and so much more, you recently wrote a book called The Return on Kindness, which I feel is kind of like the broader picture of what it means to be a kind leader in an organisation that prioritises mental health, etc.


Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to write the book and basically this incredible body of work that you’ve been working on for the past few years.


Bonnie Cheng

So this really has come about during the pandemic. And I think a lot of these kinds of, you know, topics around mental health has really been something that companies have started to pay attention to more as a result of the pandemic. So, during the pandemic, I had these conversations with my publisher who really wanted to have me focus on diving into a leadership book, a popular press leadership book. And my initial reaction to that was, you know, this polite, thanks, but no thanks. Just because I’ve been teaching executive leadership to MBAs and masters students, and even to senior executives in our executive education programme. And part of that, you know, has been me keeping on top of all of the books, the articles, the readings, all of the body of research that’s been done on leadership to date. And so I was well aware of, you know, the 10s of 1000s, of leadership books that we already have out there. And so I just thought, you know, what more could be possibly said on this topic.

But, you know, here we are, during COVID. And it was, you know, long COVID in Hong Kong, and I started to really think about what’s needed to not just, you know, help get a workforce that suffering, how do we lead them out of a pandemic and out of a crisis, but to think about, you know, longer term, we know that it’s going to be, you know, unrelenting change is just going to be constant. So what’s needed to kind of future proof leadership? And here we were, during a pandemic, when we were seeing, you know, a workforce that’s struggling with their mental health with their well being, and seeing business leaders really also struggle. And in Asia, you were seeing a full range of responses, right, there would be companies that were really supporting their workforce. And that was great to see. But then there was also the flip side of, you know, managers who were doing everything they could to exert more control, when you know, a workforce was suddenly forced to work from home, you would see managers who are, you know, scheduling more meetings or implementing policies that would really trap their people in the cycle that was not productive.

So seeing this kind of trend in leadership books that I do keep on top of, I was seeing this trend more recently around, you know, a human centred leadership approach. And we are seeing, you know, the need for, you know, more authentic leaders or positive leaders and ethical leaders were seeing, you know, all of these kinds of articles and blogs out there, but we really weren’t seeing it in practice. And as we all know, these eventually just become buzzwords that are thrown about.

So this is a long winded story to kind of say that I decided to kind of cut across all of that jargon and, and really focus on the fundamentals right, let’s get down to the basics, which is kindness.

One more piece about that is that you know, so we had this topic in place and we’re really excited about it. But then we’re thinking about well, who’s the target audience, and really who the target audience would be, you know, the leaders who need to change, you know, the the quote, unquote, the toxic leaders out there. But we’re also aware that, you know, these toxic leaders are probably not going to pick up a book on kindness. And so the title of the book, The Return on Kindness was kind of born from that. So it’s a play on ROI. But this really about the ROK and showing leaders that the hard line, the tangible and the intangible impacts of kindness on not just the bottom line, but on people right on purpose on company, and really pulling from the data, all of the research, including my own that shows, you know, there is a tangible effect of kindness.

And hopefully, that’s something that will get their attention and make them want to make at least these gradual shifts towards kind leadership.

Siobhan Barnes

Yeah, that’s really beautiful. And I picked up your book, and I absolutely loved it for a number of reasons. Number one was there was you framed it with a structure and some frameworks. My most favourite framework was the kind of leadership matrix, because I think you really bust that myth, and the inherent association of kindness being associated with softness, which means you can’t be a good leader.

I think there’s a subtext somewhere, somehow, at least in my narrative, where I’ve had that kind of lived experience. But secondly, what I love is the data on the return on kindness, because to your point, it’s hard to like put into language, I think we conceptually say, yeah, if people feel better, they’re going to do better. But, you know, ultimately, businesses are so driven by the bottom line. So I think having those numbers was great. And the third piece I loved was hearing real life examples of leaders who are exhibiting kindness. And because it’s a book written in Asia, and a lot of these leadership books are from the States or elsewhere, it was nice to see some examples of leaders I’ve heard the name of from these Hong Kong companies.¬†

Bonnie Cheng 

Yeah, thanks for that. It’s good to hear what resonated with you. And I think that just hearing other people’s stories, I think, is really powerful. Not only for, you know, kind leaders like yourself, it’s good to hear that, you know, that, hey, there’s other people like me, and this is how, you know, they’re approaching it. And this is kind of their impact. And I think that in itself is really inspiring.

But then for, you know, another group of people who kind of feel like, you know, I don’t know where to start, or what does it look like? It’s really powerful for them to kind of hear, you know, in different industries, and also in a global context, how does that translate? And what are some shifts that I can make following from these examples that I’m reading about?

Siobhan Barnes 

Yeah, yeah. And it’s, for me, I recommend this book to all my clients, because typically, the subset of women that I work with, they’re working in pretty male dominated industries. And so they’re bumping up against, and this is such a general sweeping statement, but you know, these kinds of norms as to what it looks like to be a leader.

And you know, they’re a little bit hesitant to be, you know, too soft, too empathetic, to understanding for fear of coming across as unprofessional, or not being able to get the job done. So that’s why I’ve shared the book with them.

And going back to that kind leadership matrix, I just want to speak to it briefly for the listeners, because I think it can be helpful to kind of understand number one, where you might sit as a leader, but then number two, where your boss might be, because that can be really interesting to kind of see where they sit and how you might want to interface with them.


Would you like to talk through that Kind Leadership Matrix?


Bonnie Cheng 

So this matrix is really, as you said, it’s kind of busting myths around kindness. Right?

So the predominant, you know misperception around a kind leader is that they’re weak leaders, right? And they’re ineffective. And if that’s the case, that’s not exactly the type of leadership that you know, I would want to project if I’m trying to be authoritative and also effectual.


So the matrix came about crossing two dimensions, which is kindness and unkindness on one dimension, and then toughness and softness on the other.


And so this produces essentially four personas, right of leadership that we see very commonly in the business world. And so when you have, you know, a kind of leader that is soft, you have a pushover, right, so we all know this leadership persona is someone who is Mr. Nice Guy, and they are trying to just please as many people as they can. And essentially, they’re not making effective decisions. They’re not making you know, the tough calls that need to be made to effectively run a business. They are not holding those tough conversations that need to be held with people.

When you have a unkind and soft leader. You have essentially the ghost right you have someone who is maybe sitting there and just you know, waiting for retirement to come. So they may be, you know, laid back and easy going. And in the short run, that may seem like a good thing. But over a longer period of time, you see that you’re not exactly getting any direction from this person. They’re not there when you need them to be, that’s also ineffective in a different kind of way.

Now we’re looking at the lower right hand quadrant, you’ve got the hard ass right, so now you’ve got someone who is unkind and tough. And this, I think we can, you know, match with the kind of the toxic leader. So here’s someone who is very command and control type of leader.

So then that leaves the top right quadrant, which is someone who is kind and tough, which on first glance doesn’t seem like they go together. But one of the key points of the book is really around how kindness can absolutely coincide with toughness, because a kind leader is not someone who doesn’t lower their expectations of their people, a kind leader can absolutely still have high standards of their people. But it’s really that kindness that underpins their leadership, and is someone who provides the resources and the support to help their people, you know, meet their targets and to give their best to their team and the organisation.

Siobhan Barnes 

Yeah, thank you for walking us through that. And I think that matrix can be very helpful to sort of understand where your tendency might be as a leader. And you know, what you’re dealing with. And I think what you’ve done so beautifully in this book, Bonnie is you’ve given language to those things that we can feel.

So typically, when I work with my clients, they talk about their leaders. And I’m like, “Oh, I know that yours is the aloof one, right? The ghost, that’s not they’re not going to advocate for you, or Mr. Nice Guy who’s not going to make any decisions.” And I think what you’ve done in the book is like, there’s a differentiation between nice and kind, right?


Nice is just being friendly, or just nice on the surface.


But kindness is actually sometimes saying the hard thing, even though it might not be the thing you want to hear.


And Bonnie you’ve given evidence as to why we need this leadership within organisations.


And I agree with you, we’re navigating different times, times are changing, you know, work from home, not work from home technology, there’s so much disruption happening. And this kind leadership is so valuable. So I’m really glad that you decided to write the book. And you know, you answered the call to do that.

Bonnie Cheng

Yeah, thanks for that, I think you put it really nicely there about, you know, giving people the language. And I’ve been hearing that a lot of people have been using, for example, that matrix to kind of work through their own teams, or, you know, people who are running leadership workshops or trainings, you know, it’s an effective tool that you can essentially put in front of people, you know, walk through the different personas, and think about, you know, when are specific times when I’ve operationalized, each of these types of leadership personas, so that we can kind of work backwards and figure out what the trigger is we’re also work through how do we get to, you know, this top right quadrant, which is the kind leadership, impactful leadership quadrant.

So that’s a really helpful tool that I think has allowed, you know, teams and organisations to also propel their leadership forward and make these kind of behavioural shifts toward kindness.¬†

Siobhan Barnes

Which goes to your point, right about not just wanting to talk about buzzwords, but actually create that change in that action. So you’re very much a part of that. Yeah, absolutely. Which is fantastic. And that’s something that you do as well, right. With your work in consulting. Yeah.

Bonnie Cheng

And, actually, I’ve had some really, you know, interesting, really engaging, really fun workshops, just using that matrix. Yeah. Because people love to talk about, you know, these toxic bosses. I mean, it’s kind of sad that everybody has a story around toxic bosses. Yes, some still do, unfortunately. But they also love to share these stories. And I think it can be a fun exercise, but it’s also pretty powerful, right?

Because, in hearing these stories that we have, can also work towards, you know, what are what are some actions? What are some steps that we can take, and also working? You know, the other way is not just talking about bosses we’ve had, but talking about our own leadership. Yeah, and what are some actions that we can see in ourselves are some behaviours, even some micro behaviours, right, that we see in ourselves, and maybe some tendencies that we may fall into some traps that we can, you know, overcome, and when we hear each other, share their stories, and it takes a you know, a bit of vulnerability here, but when we hear each other share their own stories, it really helps us work towards you know, how do we move towards, you know, the upper right hand quadrant, and depending on where you fall, that journey is going to be different, right? You’re gonna you either have to amp up your your kindness or, you know, even amp up your toughness, right.


It’s interesting to have those discussions around, you know, how do we get there and how do we support each other to get there?


Siobhan Barnes 

I love that. Again, you’re speaking to the tangible action which I think is fantastic because we’ve want some tools to be able to do that. So for any of the listeners listening, I highly recommend Bonnie’s book and I’ll link to it in the show notes. And equally, if you’re like, oh, I need to bring this into my organisation, I’d love for Bonnie to run a workshop, I’ll pop a link to get in contact with Bonnie as well.

So, taking a step back, Bonnie, like you are an Organisational Psychologist, and you know, you’ve been in this profession for a really long time.


I’m curious to know how you chose this profession in the first place and how you landed on wellbeing and kind leadership as your specialisation?


Bonnie Cheng 

I didn’t necessarily have a clear direction when I started my undergraduate degree. And I enrolled in, you know, general life sciences, and maybe had a thought that I would go into med school. But my very first course in my undergraduate studies was an intro psych course. And it just blew my mind. I mean, not to be dramatic, but it felt like I was getting the answers to the universe, right? It was learning about things I’ve always wondered about, and getting answers to questions around, you know, why people behaved the way that they they did, right, how to anticipate or how to even predict other people’s behaviours, how to change people’s behaviours, it was incredible. And so that was my aha moment. And I’m very fortunate to have had that in my first class of my undergraduate, because that then became a very clear path for me to follow.

Maybe I didn’t know what the profession was going to be, but I had a very strong direction of interest. And that passion still hasn’t faded. I specialised in social psychology. I did a master’s in social and personality psychology. And then I did a PhD in organisational behaviour, which is essentially the application of social psychological principles to understanding human behaviour within the workplace, with the objective of creating better workforce dynamics and organisational cultures.

Now, how did I get into this area of well being and kind of leadership? My PhD dissertation was about anxiety in the workplace. But the focus of it was very much around how to bring out the best of that anxiety. Most of the research up to that point had been focused on all the ways that anxiety debilitates you right, and how, you know, it has negative implications on performance. But to me, that’s so depressing, right to study the negative, there’s, there’s too much darkness in the world. And I really wanted to study something positive. And also, I just didn’t, except this kind of negative view of anxiety as a be all end all.

We all know that we need some anxiety to motivate us. Some of us can’t even get going until they have the pressure of a deadline. And so the emphasis of my dissertation was really about how do we help people leverage that motivating potential of anxiety, so that they can channel that energy into doing their best work, I approach the study of workplace anxiety from various angles. One of those perspectives is around helping employees have a better relationship with their anxiety at work, and helping them learn or start to accept that it’s not something to be afraid of. And so that’s really about getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, right, it’s about learning your triggers and identifying when people typically get anxious in work situations, so that they can learn better ways of coping or managing those triggers. And also their reactions to those triggers.

Another perspective is to approach this from an applied behavioural intervention approach. And so I work directly with companies around experimentation. We try all of these different interventions with employees in controlled field experiments, or as controlled as we can get when we’re in the workplace, because ultimately, we’re not in the laboratory. But we try different things, essentially, to see what strategies we can use to help employees to manage their workplace anxiety in an effective and productive way. Some of this is around planning. Some of this is around training people to recover from work anxiety, but all of it is using evidence based best practices.

And then the third perspective, is really to approach this research top down. We know we can train employees all day long to develop better coping strategies to manage their workplace anxiety. But at the end of the day, if they’re working in a toxic culture that’s promoting stress, it’s not going to be very effective. And so this final area of research that I do is really around how to work with leaders to create better cultures that promote well being in developing the strength of leadership. And so that’s the link to kindness.

Siobhan Barnes 

That’s really beautiful as I hear you talk, I hear your passion and your excitement. And yeah, you’re right. It’s quite a gift to know what you want to do from university. So many people don’t know. And they fall into parts that aren’t in alignment with what they really want to do.


As you’ve navigated your career decisions, how do you decide which direction to go?


And I’m asking you this question, because I know you also work with university students in the MBA programme, who I’m guessing also have careers choice points and decisions to make. So I’m just curious how you navigate that.

Bonnie Cheng 

I consider myself very fortunate to have carved out this career that sits at the intersection of academia and industry. And because of that, I’ve had so many incredibly interesting and unique opportunities. And for me, it’s really about finding time, this is not, I guess, a traditional career. Because outside of my full time job in the university, where I’m doing research and teaching, and also administrative responsibilities, I’ve also really branched out to work very closely with industry, and corporate partners. And to me, it’s really about trying to stay focused on kind of this core purpose and the passion that I have around leadership and corporate wellness, and really doing things that are aligned with that passion and really having to say no a little bit to things that may fall a little bit outside of that scope, which is hard for someone like me, because I get excited about so many things.


I think in this juncture in my career, it’s really about, you know, keeping focused on how do I want to make the most impact, and what’s the best route to getting there.


And so when I talk to my students, when I talk to MBA students who have a lot of career choices to make, I often tell them that you know, a lot of the things that they’re going to be doing, you know, five years from now, 10 years from now, they’re not written in the job description, they’re not written in the typical channels that they are taking now to first find an entry point into an organisation.

So the best approach that I would tell them is to really find the right fit, find the organisation that they believe has values that align with their own. And once they’re in and they’re doing a good job that’s going to catch the attention of a lot of people that’s going to expand their network, and it’s just going to, you know, naturally create opportunities for them. And so that’s that’s sort of how I’ve navigated my own career and really excited about what’s to come right, what are all of the new and exciting opportunities that may reveal itself that, you know, allow me to make more impact on corporate wellness and kindness as well in organisation?

Siobhan Barnes 

Beautiful. And I can really hear like all these different areas really feeding each other and let keeping you really at the cutting edge of knowing what’s going on right in terms of your students and the younger generation coming through. But equally your research background and then working with corporates, it’s such a beautiful symbiosis harmony that’s going on, which is really beautiful.

So Bonnie, thank you so much for sharing everything today. I’ve learned so much from the conversation as it pertains to kind leadership, but also how you came to be here and doing this body of work.


As we begin to wrap what is the one final thought that you would like to leave our listeners with? 


Bonnie Cheng

Thank you again, for having me, it’s so much fun, I feel like we could just talk for hours, it’s me too.


So I guess the final thought would be bringing it back to kindness is, you know, kindness is such a simple concept, right? But there’s surprisingly big returns.


And so the book really unpacks those returns, right, and these are data backed. And it also walks readers through, you know, a simple framework to inspire kind leadership, and also in, you know, thinking about how to design for kind cultures. And then as you mentioned, it also shares just wonderful, delightful conversations that I had with global leaders, who really epitomise kind leadership, and so many different ways to and so there’s so much there by way of sharing these stories of kind leaders.

So what I’d like your listeners to kind of take away from this is, you know, to really be part of this community, one avenue for that is to check out the website, which is thereturnonkindness.com.

And I’d love for all of your listeners to kind of share their own stories of kind leadership and, more importantly, what the impact of kind leaders has been either on yourself or on your team or on the company or even on the broader community, right.


Storytelling is such a powerful way for us to make transformative cultural shifts.


And so this website is really a platform that’s designed for anyone who really wants to kind of connect with a broader community of people who believe in this type of leadership. So I think that’s the one message that I would give.

Siobhan Barnes 

That’s really beautiful. And I’ll pop a link to that in the show notes. So those of you who are interested can check it out. And I think there’s something very powerful in community seeing what’s possible being together in there.

So thank you, Bonnie again for spearheading this whole initiative and for sharing more unkind leadership today. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.

Thank you so much. Thank you so much for tuning in. Please connect with me as I shared and pop on over to the show notes to get all the links if you’re not connected with me on all the socials. And please remember before we go that you are here for a reason beyond merely hustling, grinding and merely surviving, you matter.

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