Be Kind, Not Nice – Part One

One day, Karen* arrived for a session late and clearly agitated. When I asked what was happening, she explained she was coming from a meeting with Charlie*, who had just been assigned to her team. A company veteran, Charlie consistently received high performance and retention ratings. Karen was excited to have someone of his caliber joining the team. But upon meeting him, she was horrified. “Charlie in person is nothing like Charlie on paper.” she lamented. “He doesn’t have the skills or presence we need in the job. So now I have an employee I can’t use in an environment of tight headcount. This is a disaster.”

We agreed that she would invoke her ardent curiosity, and reach out to his prior managers to get more information. It turns out they agreed with her. He wasn’t performing at a level that warranted such high ratings, but because they didn’t want to disempower him, they chose to emphasize his strengths and downplay areas of improvement. Rather than upset Charlie, they withheld some important truths about his performance, and settled for less until they could move him on in the organization.

How could this happen among smart, seasoned, well-meaning leaders?

As herd animals, we humans are hardwired to connect. We want people to like, trust, and respect us. We want our value and contributions affirmed. We want to belong. This is not just pleasant; it’s a psycho-biological survival strategy. And so, from very early in life, we learn to “be nice”. If the herd accepts us, we get to eat another day. If not, we get eaten.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines nice as, “Giving pleasure or satisfaction; pleasant or attractive.” When we identify as nice, we organize our behaviors around pleasing others, being liked, and gaining others’ approval.

As illustrated in the story of Karen and Charlie, “nice” as a mindset creates all kinds of problems for otherwise skillful leaders. How can you challenge, debate, lead change, or give uncomfortable feedback when being liked and getting others’ approval is essential? How can you tell someone the truth if the truth isn’t pleasing?

You can’t. Worse yet, nice becomes emotionally taxing over time. All that pleasing and settling requires that we compromise our own vision and values. Then it’s only a matter of time before we start feeling resentment because we’ve abandoned ourselves. Perhaps we rationalize our self-abandonment by blaming someone else (boss, colleague, the organization) to deflect responsibility for our plight. Eventually our passion and resilience dwindle, and resentment starts leaking out as passive-aggressive behavior. Bottom line, being nice sells everybody short.

In Part Two we’ll explore what it means to be kind instead of nice, and how kind leadership inspires the best in people, organizations, and the world.

*All of the client examples I write about in this blog are fictional. There is no Karen and no Charlie. Everything that happens in this story did actually happen, but across many different clients in different organizations.

Laurel Callan


Outsmarting the Imposter

stamp fake with red text on whiteFor some of us it speaks in a silky whisper. For others, the tone is derisive, condescending, or downright mean. You know the voice I’m talking about. The one in your head that, in those moments when you most need confidence and support, says something like, “Nice try, but you’re an impostor and it’s only a matter of time before everybody finds out.”

After years of coaching leaders, I’ve come to believe that the impostor syndrome is a nearly universal human experience, especially among high achievers facing an unfamiliar challenge. Many leaders work valiantly to overcome its erosive message, investing precious time and energy that otherwise could be used to create, connect, and inspire.

Nowhere was my impostor syndrome more evident than during the startup of my practice 17 years ago. After a few months of struggle, one friend gently observed that I was unlikely to find many clients between my couch and refrigerator. He gave me the bad news: get out there and network. Suddenly I felt myself back in 6th grade at a pool party where the boys slow danced with every girl but me. Fear of rejection had me in its grip and I was stuck.

After several days of deep reflection and brownie hot fudge sundaes, I hired a coach.

We worked for several months and did all sorts of things to open up space for change. We created a vision, identified and addressed behaviors and beliefs that stood in the way, and developed a new personal narrative that more accurately described my current capability and the possibilities into which I was growing. The work was rigorous but fun, and I began to feel more in control. We crafted tangible action steps. You guessed it, one of those steps was networking.

While no longer terrified, I was still skeptical and had lots of reasons why networking wasn’t for me. My coach listened respectfully, and then said, “Networking is talking to people. Isn’t that what you love doing for a living? Talking to people?” That moment was like a brain transplant without the mess. In an instant, something I had dreaded for months became fun and exciting. I started visualizing people as colorfully wrapped packages, waiting to be opened so I could discover the beauty inside.

All that time I thought I was learning to network with other people, it turns out I was meeting my best self. And in that process I discovered many things. That I see the best in people. That I care deeply. That I have some valuable skills and the opportunity to learn a lot more. That I’m not perfect. But an impostor? Nope.

Laurel Callan