#324 from Innovative Leader Volume 7, Number 2          February 1998

Are You Just Too Nice?
by Peter B. Stark

    Mr. Stark is Principal of  PBS & Associates, Inc., a San Diego based consulting firm specializing in leadership development, organizational assessments, and management consulting (phone 619-451-3601). www.pbsconsulting.com

    Several of the organizations and departments that we work with have leaders that we would describe as "nice" people. They are the type of people you would like to have over for dinner or have as personal friends. They would do anything to help you, or support you in your efforts. When we describe this type of leader, there's a tendency to think that the organizations these individuals lead would have employees with very high morale. After all, everyone wants to work for a "nice" manager.

    Well, it might surprise you to know that more often than not these organizations 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 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.

    We have identified seven specific problems that tend to appear when leaders are nice, but do not do what is right.

1. Failure to deal with problem employees.

Leaders who want to be seen as nice tend to ignore employee problems. These leaders prefer to manage by what we have coined "hope-and-hint." They hope problem employees will improve without any intervention and when they do not, they drop a hint. Instead of coaching, counseling, and terminating employees who do not improve, some leaders ignore the problems or transfer the problem employees to another department. Such a move further undermines morale. What do these leaders get for being nice? They lose their employees' respect. Employees know that their managers are shirking responsibility by not dealing with their problem situations. In fact, just as children sometimes do, the problem employees also lose respect because they know the leaders do not have the guts or courage to deal with the situation.

2.  Failure to set and maintain high standards of performance.  

Many times, nice leaders are hesitant to set and maintain high standards of performance. These leaders lower their standards when employees complain about their high expectations. After all, nice managers listen to their employees and make adjustments accordingly. What is ironic, is that it is impossible to maintain high morale in a department or organization without having consistent standards and expectations.

3. Failure to act quickly.

Frequently, nice managers prefer to wait because they hope the situation will improve. When there are problems in the department or organization, they tend to get worse, not better, unless you take prompt action. One department we worked with was getting a lot of customer complaints. The manager knew problems existed but insisted that he was too busy to deal with the problems. The problems lingered and morale suffered. The employees blamed management and management blamed employees. Whenever there is a problem, swift action is required. Do not allow employee or operational problems to linger. The sooner you eliminate problems, the more respect you will earn as the leader.

4. Carelessness with rewards. We currently work with several organizations who have phenomenal reward and bonus systems. These organizations have consistently provided employees with above-average raises and provided bonuses to every employee on a regular basis.  How can an organization that provides bonuses once a month or once a year ever have low morale? Morale suffers when there is no differentiation in the reward a top-performing team or employee receives versus the reward a low-performing team or employee receives. When rewards are not based upon performance, top performers' morale suffers because they feel the reward system is not fair. Low performers' morale suffers because they do not see how their individual or team contributions impact the results.

5. Do not make your rewards an entitlement.

Recently we worked with an organization that provided a wonderful monthly bonus to every employee based on the profitability of the organization. Some months this bonus amounted to approximately 25 percent of each employee's base salary. One leader in the organization was upset when an employee stated that the monthly bonus should be even higher. Two things have occurred here. First, the employee is out of touch with reality. How many organizations give a monthly or yearly bonus? Not many! Second, the bonus is no longer perceived as a bonus and is now perceived as an entitlement.

You can eliminate the entitlement perspective if the bonus is perceived as truly rewarding the top-performing team or individual. Top performers are not usually the disgruntled employees who believe they are entitled to the reward. Second, we feel strongly that "gifts" from the organization should be varied, (i.e., change what you reward). One month provide a reward for outstanding quality. The next month reward teamwork. The next month reward customer service. Select values that are important to the organization's success and reward those individuals and teams who live those values.   

6. Increase non-monetary rewards.

Unfortunately, we have witnessed money backfiring as a motivator as many times as we have seen it work. Over time, what is more effective is for a leader to create a relationship with each employee where the employee truly feels that his or her unique gift and contribution to the team are valued. This relationship can be created with every employee by providing praise and recognition for what is going right, as well as feedback for what needs to be improved. The feeling that you are valued and add special significance to the team/organization's success cannot be bought with money.

7. Tell it like it is!

Nice leaders tend to present communication in the way they think people will not have their feathers ruffled. They speak in general terms or hedge their words. The reality is that people do not respect leaders who do not honestly communicate. Be honest. Tell it like it is.

Being nice may be effective in social settings where only brief and superficial interactions are required. However, when leading others it is most important to do what's right. Doing what's right means being fair, honest, ethical, and making hard decisions. Sometimes doing what's right will not be labeled "nice." But, doing what's right will positively effect long-term personal, interpersonal, and organizational growth.

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