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The Trouble with Nice

Optimize Blog - March 21, 2016 - 0 comments

Of all the qualities you don’t want in a manager, there’s one that you might not have given much thought about and that is being overly nice.
Within some of the client organizations that we work with there are leaders that we would describe as “nice” people. These are the type of people you would like to have over for dinner or have as personal friends. When we describe this type of leader, there’s a tendency to think that the organizations these individuals lead would have employees with high morale. After all, everyone wants to work for a “nice” manager.
On the contrary however, it might surprise you to know that more often than not these organizations or at least teams, have some evidence of significant people problems and below-average morale. We have found that when it comes to leadership, there is a significant difference between being “nice” and being respected for doing what’s “right.”
When leaders are nice, but do not do what is right and in the best interest of the organization and its employees, the leaders lose the respect of their staff, create people problems, and eventually morale plummets. As leaders then we need to determine our priorities and sometimes suppress our need as individuals to be liked. In the long run it is far better to be respected for doing the right things.
Let us be clear however – we are not advocating you become some form of slimy reptile with nothing but your own career goals driving your behaviour. Unfortunately many clients when discussing this issue make this leap and talk about moving to the direct opposite of nice whilst avoiding any of the shades in between.
Good managers as strong leaders avoid both extremes. Instead, they act with the confidence of their position – confidently laying out expectations and holding people to them, operating in a fair, positive, and straightforward manner, and backing up their words with action. They have a matter-of-fact attitude toward authority, seeing it as just one more tool in their toolbox for getting things done.
So how might we know if we are too far over on the “nice scale”? Well, we see some quite specific issues when there is an imbalance between being nice and doing the right things. We will witness the following:
The manager won’t make hard decisions or have hard conversations. One common way this plays out is in managers who won’t address performance problems or remove underperformers. But it plays out in other ways as well. For example, a manager who’s afraid of conflict may hesitate to make necessary course corrections mid-way through a project, but then be unhappy with the final product.
Good managers know that a large part of their job is to solve problems, not avoid them, and that they can’t value preserving harmony or avoiding tough conversations above all else.
We see them sending fuzzy, unclear messages. Managers who are uncomfortable exercising authority directly often frame requirements as suggestions, resulting in employees who are confused about expectations and managers who are frustrated that their “suggestions” aren’t taken seriously. The lack of explicit expectations being exchanged is a major minefield in the world of business – too many managers act in a way that suggests that their employees are mind readers or that somehow osmosis plays a part in thoughts and meanings being transferred to employees.
Being overly nice often precludes the employees getting useful or useable feedback. Good leaders coach employees on how they can grow and develop, which necessarily entails pointing out things they could and should be doing differently, something too-nice managers often find awkward.
We see too-nice managers often struggling to set standards, address problems, and enforce consequences – and if you’ve ever worked somewhere where poor behavior or unsatisfactory work was tolerated, you know how frustrating and demoralizing this can be. Good people want to work with other good people, and they want to know that the person leading the team is discerning when it comes to results.
“Nice” managers often tell everyone but the person who needs to know. The right thing to do is to tell people the truth and put their fate in their own hands. Don’t forget that people who had performance conversations with their manager and knew what the consequences were before they got fired, rarely sue. You generally find that only ‘surprised’ people sue for wrongful dismissal and frankly they are in a good place to win their case……
In our experience employees’ quality of life goes up in environments where standards are high, accountability is clear, and people can count on coworkers to pull their own weight. When this environment does not exist the best employees leave in frustration and the mediocre employees hang around, because they’ve found a safe haven. That’s the kiss of death for productivity…….

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