Work Advice: Can You be a Nice Person but a Bad Manager?

This column has plenty of examples of bosses who abuse, belittle and undermine their subordinates. But is it possible for a manager to be too nice?

Many readers responding to my recent query think so, and they provided numerous examples of managers whose likability got in the way of effectively dealing with problems.

An education professional in Madison, Wis., had a manager who was “a great guy and a deeply decent human being.” However, “he just made it very, very difficult to do my job.”

He “tried so hard to see everyone’s point of view that he couldn’t make any decisions,” wrote the reader, identified by her handle “Esme_Weatherwax,” in an email.

When one of Esme’s subordinates objected to including any suggestions for improvement in her annual written review, the manager said they could just forgo the standard review process to keep the reviewee happy, Esme said, adding: “He somehow wanted me to handle her performance issues without allowing me to document her performance issues.”

Some readers outed themselves as the “nice guys.”

“Unfortunately, I have been that person,” said Amanda Cockrell, a retired graduate program director from Hollins University who described herself as “conflict averse.” She adds: “I just hate being in charge of other people, and I’m not good at getting them to do what they’re supposed to do when they aren’t doing it.”

While working at a radio station in her late 20s, Cockrell supervised an assistant copywriter who “slacked off, read the newspaper in the production room instead of doing production, and was generally a mess.” When the station manager wanted to fire the assistant, Cockrell felt “terrible” for her and talked him out of it. Eventually, the assistant was fired anyway, and Cockrell never again took a job managing people.

I identify with Cockrell. As a manager in my 20s, I recall letting junior team members get away with doing less than they were capable of rather than risk having them resent me. I preferred to assume that they were doing their best, as I was. And, well, I’m a bit conflict averse myself.

Kim Scott, author of “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” refers to this phenomenon as “Ruinous Empathy.” She describes giving feedback as a graph with “caring personally” on one axis and “challenging directly” on the other. Caring too little and challenging too much results in what she calls “Obnoxious Aggression,” the kind of bad management we all know about. But it can be just as bad to care so much about people’s feelings that you avoid challenging them even when they need it.

But how can empathy be “ruinous?” Isn’t empathetic leadership the new “How to Win Friends and Influence People?”

Empathy doesn’t mean avoiding hard truths. It means delivering them in a compassionate manner that respects the recipient and allows for feedback and flexibility. It’s the difference between being nice to work with and being good at your job.

Here’s why a caring-without-challenging management style can do more harm than good:

-It doesn’t fool anyone. People often sense when positive feedback is insincere or incomplete. Joni Bosch, a nurse practitioner in Iowa, worked for “the sweetest physician who always went out of his way for everyone, and assumed everyone else would too.” The problem, Bosch said in an email, was that her boss avoided giving negative feedback: “I got a perfect performance evaluation, 5 out of 5 on everything. It was sweet, but it wasn’t really feedback.”

-It’s demotivating to high performers. Even if Bosch’s boss had nothing but praise for her work, Bosch was pretty sure everyone else received the same flawless rating. “It didn’t feel like the extra stuff I was doing in some areas was noted,” she said.

-It forces someone else to be the bad guy. Donna, a professional in the Los Angeles entertainment industry who asked to go by her first name to protect her career, likened her predecessor to a “delightful, funny flight attendant schmoozing, pouring champagne and offering blankets to passengers while the plane was in a nosedive and all engines [were] on fire. An absolute joy to be around, but unable to perform basic functional logistics.”

When that manager was fired and Donna took over the position, she faced resistance when trying to bring the business back on track: “Everyone missed the champagne and blankets, and I was treated like a traitor.”

But being willing to challenge employees to do better helps everyone – as well as the bottom line.

Kevin De Angelis, a retired electrical engineer in Portland, Ore., said he used to work for a boss who “was widely liked as a person, but was completely ineffectual as a manager,” allowing one particular member of De Angelis’s group to “[run] roughshod over everyone.” The boss spent more time out of the office than in it to avoid dealing with her, and others in the group transferred to other groups or other employers. Then a new boss “who had a spine” put the troublesome individual on probation. She left, and “employee churn in our group abruptly stopped,” De Angelis said in an email.

Directly challenging underperformers is a kindness to them, as well. No one enjoys hearing negative feedback, but imagine how much harsher it sounds coming from an outsider who doesn’t know or care about you personally – especially if your “nice” manager has allowed you to coast for months or years with no indication that anything was amiss.

So how do you find that balance between being caring and challenging? Scott recommends encouraging respectful candor in others and soliciting candid feedback yourself to show you can take what you want them to dish out. Constructive feedback goes down easier when it’s baked into your company culture and sandwiched between layers of sincere praise for what they’re doing right.

Finally, a hard-won lesson of my own: Accept that your critiques and decisions may not always be welcomed or applauded. But sometimes that resistance means addressing the problem is more important than keeping the peace. If it weren’t, you could just keep on being Mx. Nice Boss.