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.