Being Nice and Effective
Saturday, October 23, 2021
I’m writing this article for the nice people in leadership roles. By the meaning of the word “nice,” such people are kind, polite, and friendly. They generally trust the goodness of the people they lead. They are not usually difficult to work with, care for others, are patient, and listen. They venture to be vulnerable. You don’t hesitate to approach them.
In contrast, not-so-nice leaders believe in their control and power more than the people they lead and hence can be indifferent and challenging to work with. They rarely show humility. They like to be right all the time. You hesitate to approach them. You can spot them in meetings — they run their meetings like court sessions.
I picked up this question of whether nice people can be effective based on a few passing comments of being nice in a couple of situations. The question bothered me a bit, and I wanted to find out.
What does it mean to be effective? Effective is getting things done. Effective is being clear of what you want and what you are willing to forego to produce results.
In 2000, Daniel Goldman wrote a widely referenced article in HBR titled Leadership That Gets Results. In 2017, HBR Press also published a book by the same title. At the beginning of this book, Daniel poses the question “What should leaders do?” and proceeds to answer with “the leader’s singular job is to get results.” Based on some prior research, he then introduces six leadership styles and their impact on an organization’s working environment, which he refers to as “climate.” Here are the six leadership styles.
- Coercive: This style demands immediate compliance. You get told more often than being asked about what you think. This style hurts the climate.
- Authoritative: This style mobilizes people towards a vision. They motivate people through vision and work to maximize your commitment to goals. You would know how your work is contributing to the broader vision. This style has the most positive impact on the climate.
- Affiliative: This style creates harmony and builds emotional bonds with the people. Under such leadership, people share ideas and their inspiration with one another. This style also has a positive impact on the climate.
- Democratic: This style forges consensus through participation. This style is characterized by listening to people and getting their buy-in to drive flexibility and responsibility, even if it takes more time. This style also has a positive impact on the climate.
- Pacesetting: This style sets high standards for performance and creates “do as I do, now” pressure on people in an “I know it all” mode. Of course, this style also harms the climate.
- Coaching: This style develops people for the future. In this style, you will see delegation get challenging assignments. You will be lucky to work with such leaders since you grow. This style also has a positive impact on the climate.
In this book, he describes climate with the following six factors:
- flexibility — that is, how free employees feel to innovate unencumbered by red tape
- their sense of responsibility to the organization
- the level of standards that people set
- the sense of accuracy about performance feedback and aptness of rewards
- the clarity people have about mission and values
- the level of commitment to a common purpose.
He identifies that authoritative, democratic, affiliative, and coaching styles have “the best climate and business performance.” The other two styles, coercive and pacesetting, hurt the climate. I’m sure you all have worked with or for managers that employed these two negative styles, and you could not run away from them fast enough.
Coming to being nice, since nice people are kind, polite, and friendly to others, they have better chances at practicing positive leadership styles. We can therefore dispel the perception that you can’t be nice if you want to be effective. Being nice is essential to being effective.
However, nice people can sabotage their effectiveness in at least the following ways:
- Hesitation to act – could be due to waiting for consensus for decisions, setting a vision but not implementing the mechanisms to translate that vision into outcomes, defaulting to humble inquiry and coaching all the time, or participating instead of leading
- Not employing their leverage – see “Behavior 3: Using your leverage” in my leadership document
- Being diplomatic and tactful when candor is needed and forgetting that care without candor creates an ineffective climate.
- Not saying “no” enough
Here is my summary:
First, being nice should not come at the expense of being effective. Likewise, being effective should not require not being nice. You can be nice and effective.
Second, don’t think in terms of extremes of being nice vs. being effective. Find the nuance by developing candor.
Third, don’t stop being nice if someone accuses you of being nice. Kinder leadership styles are in short supply. Instead, invest in radically improving your effectiveness.