The 4 Most common mistakes nice leaders make

Do you aim to be a “nice” leader? The kind of leader who is always upbeat and positive, who never makes anyone uncomfortable, and who is loved by all employees?

Being nice is an admirable goal, in and out of the workplace. After all, there is mounting research that suggests that there are a lot of benefits associated with being a leader who creates a positive environment in which people can thrive.

However, as a corporate psychologist who has worked with CEOs, senior leaders, and other managers over the years, I have found that there are some common mistakes that many well-intentioned leaders make in their efforts to be “nice” at all times.

1. Setting expectations that are too low

In an effort to be well-liked, many “nice” leaders short-change the organization and their employees by setting goals that are too easily achieved. Instead of requiring their people to develop new skills or leverage their talents in new ways, these leaders set goals that don’t demand their employees to perform at their absolute best. While this might keep workplace morale in a comfortable spot, it can tend to work against employees in the long-term, since study after study has shown that specific and ambitious goals lead to higher performance than lower-difficulty goals.

If you find yourself guilty of setting the bar too low, recognize that you may actually be stifling your employees’ development, thereby affecting the organization at large.

Takeaway: Raise the bar, and get better results from your people, and your area. The rule of thumb is that you should aim to set goals that are challenging, yet attainable.

2. “Protecting” employees by not delegating enough

I’ve come across a lot of leaders who make the decision to take on the bulk of the work for themselves, instead of delegating it appropriately. In many cases, this is a mechanism to protect employees from becoming over-burdened; in other cases, it stems from a fixation with control; and in others, it’s a combination thereof. Even though making a concerted effort not to overburden your employees comes from a well-intentioned place, it can often backfire in a number of ways.

First, it can hold back the go-getters on your team who have aspirations to take on bigger jobs in the future. Because you aren’t giving them the chance to manage a larger workload, they can miss out on valuable development opportunities with respect to prioritization and time management. Second, by getting too much in the details of daily work, you are not making the highest and best use of your time. You may be overlooking opportunities to take a step back, strategize, prioritize, and streamline processes.

Takeaway: Experiment with asking more of your team, and you might be surprised at how they are able to rise to the challenge. Remember, as a leader, your role is generally to be more of an orchestrator than a doer.

3. Not giving constructive criticism

Recently I coached an executive I’ll call Abby, who was loved by her team. She was kind, caring, and wanted the best for her employees. And because she wanted them to feel good, she gave all of her people all 5’s (on a 5-point scale) on their performance reviews (much to the chagrin of HR). Her employees, of course, were happy in the sense that they felt validated, comfortable.

But Abby’s action meant she also never gave corrective feedback; she insisted that everyone “worked hard,” that they got the proverbial “A for effort.” The unfortunate end result was that many of her people had blind spots and were not performing up to their respective potentials. Abby had a latent awareness of this as she explained the situation to me, and it was clear a large part of her actions came from her own interest in being well-liked, possibly stemming from insecurity.

Abby isn’t alone in having this sort of outlook. I’ve come across many leaders who don’t give their people crucial feedback that could help their development because they would feel “mean” or simply discouraging to do so.

If you feel this way, I encourage you to consider the example of a basketball coach. If a coach told players to ignore working on their poor free throw shooting percentage because they had good ball handling skills, she would obviously be limiting the players’ performances. Likewise, you as a leader are limiting your employees if you are reluctant to coach them in ways that would help them to improve.

Takeaway: If you want your people to grow, keep providing encouragement, but make sure to also communicate constructive feedback. In a Harvard Business Review article, authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman cited their own research which found that 57% of the respondents actually preferred corrective feedback to praise, and  72% of respondents felt that their performance would improve if they received constructive criticism from their boss. In other words, people want feedback, and as a leader, it is your job to give it.

4. Shying away from conflict

One final error that some leaders make is not addressing problematic team dynamics, in the hopes that they will go away on their own. Whether it is the “star” performer who isn’t a team player, the two department heads who refuse to play nice with one another, or the disorganized leader who is consistently delaying progress, the workplace can be fraught with difficult interpersonal dynamics. Instead of tackling issues head on, the “nice” leader avoids any situation that has the potential for conflict because of a desire to avoid adding to the discomfort. In turn, the problems often continue to fester.

Let’s face it. Being a leader is tough. To deal with disagreements, poor behavior, and other problematic dynamics, leaders often have to facilitate candid and uncomfortable discussions.

Takeaway: Take a deep breath, give yourself a pep talk, and deal with the issue. It might be uncomfortable, but it will likely create better outcomes for you in the long run.

While it obviously feels good to be well-liked as a leader, it’s also important to be respected. Without respect, you’re much less likely to have accountability, and as a result, you’ll ultimately limit your success.

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Patricia Thompson - Corporate Psychologist and Management Consultant | Silver Lining Psychology

About the Author

Dr. Patricia Thompson is a Corporate Psychologist and Management Consultant who is passionate about helping her clients flourish by making well-informed hiring decisions, cultivating talent, and developing a positive organizational culture. Read more...