We’ve all come across them in the workplace. Pleasant, friendly leaders who are lovely to deal with, easy to work with and very helpful. A delight, in fact. These are the nice leaders of the world.
But these nice leaders have their challenges too.
And one of them is sometimes being perceived as “too nice”.
In this post, I’ll take a look at the plight of the nice leaders out there, and some considerations to keep in mind if you’re struggling with this challenge.
What’s Wrong With Being Nice?
There is nothing wrong with being nice. I like dealing with nice people and many teams enjoy working for a pleasant, kind leader.
However, the challenge that nice leaders face often comes down to perception.
People look at them and say they are too nice. This doesn’t really mean much, but beneath it lies an implication.
The perception is that a nice leader can’t do the “tough” stuff. This might be like having a difficult conversation or holding people accountable.
The perception can also be that nice leaders will let their emotions get in the way of doing what needs to be done.
Unfortunately, perception is reality.
If people who have these perceptions are in a position to make decisions about your capability or career, you could find yourself at a disadvantage.
Learn More: Struggling as a Kind Leader? Ask Yourself These 3 Questions.
Critical Considerations For Nice Leaders
I’m not going to say that “nice” leaders can’t do the tough things. But sometimes other people don’t think they can.
So let’s look at some considerations for the nice leaders out there to see if we can improve the situation.
1. Nice Leaders Should Reframe What “Nice” Is
Sometimes nice leaders d0 resist taking difficult actions because they are concerned about hurting someone’s feelings or creating conflict.
It’s important to be able to clearly define what nice is, when it comes to leadership. Let’s go with the definition of “good natured and kind” from an online dictionary.
Good natured is good for leadership, and points to being agreeable and easy to work with. In fact, being agreeable is one of the “Big 5” personality traits that are highly sought-after in workplaces.
If we lead trying not to hurt the feelings of others, we are at risk of being controlled by how other people feel.
Nice or Not?
Here are some questions to consider:
Is it being nice to fail to hold someone accountable for poor performance? Or are you actually stopping them from developing and improving?
Is it being nice to withhold feedback about someone’s behaviour or performance? Or could this be preventing them from becoming aware of a problem, which could hurt them in the long run?
Is it being nice to the other members of the team, when they observe somebody else “getting away with murder” and not being held accountable for their actions?
Is it being nice keeping somebody in a role who is not suited, or able to perform at the right level? Or would it be nicer in the long run to let them go?
Is it being nice to spend too much time helping others, when perhaps they should be learning to help themselves?
As you can probably see, it’s good to have empathy and make an effort to understand what people are going through, but not when it stops us from taking action.
Being “nice” can have it’s limits, until you reframe what nice is!
Learn More: Want to Build Empathy? Use the Iceberg Model.
2. Nice Leaders Should Talk More About Results
Something I’ve noticed about nice leaders is that they are often more people-focused than results focused.
In other words, they tend to pay closer attention to the wellbeing of the people and the dynamics of the team than on the outcomes the team is supposed to achieve.
That’s not to say they don’t care about results. It’s just that so-called nice leaders often have a natural tendency to focus on the people, more than the target or task.
In general, I would say this is positive. I often feel that if you look after the people, the targets will take care of themselves because your team will be working well and they’ll feel good about their roles.
However, this can become a negative situation when you are perceived as being “too nice”.
The solution? Try to become more intentional about speaking about results to your boss, colleagues and your team.
Talk about the targets, how you’re tracking and what you’ll be doing to make sure you hit them.
You might have noticed that many of the leaders society holds in high esteem in the world are the go-getters who will make the hard calls to get results.
Could You Add a Little Steve Jobs to Your Leadership?
Lets think of the late Steve Jobs for a second. He tended to have a “hard nosed” quality about him that seemed to lead to good business results.
He was perceived as visionary, extremely driven but also autocratic in his leadership style. Guy Kawasaki made these comments about working for Jobs in this CNBC article:
“He demanded excellence and kept you at the top of your game. It wasn’t easy to work for him; it was sometimes unpleasant and always scary, but it drove many of us to do the finest work of our careers.”
I’m not for a second saying that you should change your personality. It’s about achieving the right balance.
Someone who I think achieved this balance very well was the recent Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern.
From my observations, she had a way of being able to make difficult calls (especially during Covid) whilst also managing to show empathy for the people that would be impacted.
In my view she maintained an excellent balance between people and action-focus, and as a result, she was very highly regarded during her time as PM.
So what could you do, to add a little Steve Jobs to your leadership, to counter the perceptions of being “too nice”?
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #201: How to Bring More Honesty to Your Leadership.
3. Nice Leaders Should Acknowledge Their Emotions
As one of the nice leaders out there, if you need to have a difficult conversation or make a tough decision, you’re going to probably feel pretty rotten about it.
You might feel sympathy for the people impacted, fearful of their reaction, or even shame for putting people through a tough time.
However, it’s one thing to be guided by our emotions, and quite another to be a slave to them. There is nothing wrong with feeling our emotions (whatever they are), but there is a problem when we let them rule us.
Feeling these emotions will encourage you to have more empathy for your people and to treat them with respect, even in tough situations. Rather than disregard the human side, you can lean into it.
Your people might not like what’s happening, but they’ll be able to respect you for the way you’ve handled it.
We don’t want to suppress our emotions, we just want to remain aware of them. You can find a few links to my other resources about handling emotions below.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #83: Handling Emotions in Leadership.
Learn More: How to Manage Your Emotions For Better Leadership.
4. Nice Leaders Should Stretch Their Teams
One way to stop a team from stagnating and standing still is to stretch your team members, To help them move outside of their comfort zone.
This can be done by setting stretch targets which team members may find challenging to reach. Then you’ll support them to get there.
This way, you’ll be focused on results (see point #2) and push your team members a little to get a bit more out of them.
When people stay inside their comfort zones, they can start to become complacent, to rest on their laurels, and to take the easy ride.
While this might feel good for them, it’s not helping to improve their skills, experience or capacity to adapt and persevere.
So once again, is it being nice to let your team cruise to achieve their goals? Or would it be nicer to support them to stretch and become better versions of themselves?
Focusing On My Own Personal Stretch
Personally, I’ve recently become very aware of this with my own work. I like to be prepared and to plan. It makes me feel more comfortable and self-assured, and then I show up and do my best work.
I’m running my own business, so I can turn down work whenever I like. I can plan my weeks so that I’m not too busy, working continuously, so that I can prepare and plan for upcoming work.
However, there is a problem with taking too much of a conservative approach. Sometimes, I can feel myself becoming too comfortable, and find myself aiming for a completely stress-free existence.
That’s why when a request comes in to do some work which would give me limited preparation time, I sometimes choose to accept it. This helps me to push myself and demonstrate that I can still adapt and perform under pressure.
Otherwise, I may slip firmly into my comfort zone, where progress and growth is limited. But when you push yourself, your comfort zone gets bigger, and you can do more than you thought possible.
What could you do to stretch your people, so they can become better versions of themselves?
There Is Nothing Wrong With Being a Nice Leader, As Long As You Can Maintain the Balance
If you’re a nice leader, that’s good. The world needs more people like you.
However, you must be careful to find the right balance between nice and effective.
Unfortunately, perceptions matter, and being perceived as “too nice” could be holding you back.
What are you going to do about it?
Are you a nice leader? What have been your biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them? Leave a comment below and let me and all the thoughtful leaders know!
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