Stop Being So Nice

Recently I’ve been working with a leader struggling to improve the performance of his employees and his company. He’d implemented a number of employee-friendly policies and reward systems, only to have them back-fire. What I discovered was that in his sincere effort to be kind to his employees, he’d become nice to them. The result was a lack of consequences for poor behavior and performance and a lack of respect for his leadership. His “niceness” had weakened him.

Being kind and being nice aren’t the same. Kindness has elements of fairness, compassion, confidence and discipline. Niceness involves equality, positive emotions, and pain avoidance. Kind parents set boundaries for their children and have a structure for their growth and development. Nice parents give the kids what they want and strive to be their best friend. The same is the case for leaders. Kindness is not softness. It’s not weakness and it doesn’t always have to be nice.

Kind leaders are externally focused. They are confident in themselves and engage in the growth of those in their care.  In their confidence, the kind leader doesn’t avoid confrontation. Sometimes kindness requires them to be tough and direct. They are generous to others but only to the point where their kindness doesn’t harm the ones they care for.

In contrast, nice leaders are inwardly focused. Their niceness is often an invitation for their own validation. They have a desire to please and as a result, can have a hard time saying no or making tough, unpopular decisions.  Nice leaders move underperforming individuals around the organization rationalizing their decision to avoid a termination. They allow deadlines to pass and poor performance to persist without taking appropriate action.

Sometimes, letting someone go from their job could be the greatest act of kindness you could show. It frees them up from a job that’s not the right fit and allows them to pursue something more appropriate. Kindness in termination is often respected by the employee once the emotion subsides. Tough action could be kindness in a lesson learned for the employee or a problem addressed for the rest of the organization. No one enjoys having difficult conversations, but in the spirit of the Hippocratic oath of leadership, we’re doing no one a favor when we avoid pain or suffering in the face of a problem. Failing to take the needed action can be far more damaging than the kindness in an honest conversation.

New leaders sometimes fall into the trap of being nice. They may lack the self-confidence and experience needed to lead and consequently settle on pleasing those that work for them. Such is the case sometimes where the leader originated from within the group they now supervise and are unsure of how to build a new relationship with previous co-workers. The consequence is that nice leaders create weak organizations and can be taken advantage of.

The kind leader is less concerned about what others might think and more concerned with doing the right thing. Out of their kindness for others, their style is infused with a heavy dose of empathy. Kindness requires compassion and a basis of trust. It is also essential that you always act with integrity and honesty. It means that at times you must present the truth of a situation in a direct, but respectful way. You don’t need to be nice to be kind, but you must make people feel heard, cared for, valued and respected.

The truth is we’re inclined to follow and respect the kind person showing confidence and look down on the nice person who’s trying too hard to please. My leader is a very nice person. To become the effective leader he wants to be he has to also become a very kind person.

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