Management by Coaching
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
TOO NICE TO LEAD
When amicability undermines performance
The agency was on their fifth interview with Peter, the lead candidate for the chief operating officer position. His resume and references were impressive. His demeanor was warm, confident, and yet surprisingly humble. Every team member who interviewed him gave him a solid thumbs up.
Wary, based on a recent hiring decision that had proven disastrous, the agency’s CEO couldn’t pull the trigger. She kept going back to the results of a leadership assessment Peter was asked to complete. Overall the evaluation indicated he was a solid match for the position and organization. He had a strong need to create connections with others. He was a good listener, a consensus builder and someone who valued harmony in his team. One question kept nagging at the CEO: “Was Peter too nice?”
Most leaders who suffer from “too nice” syndrome are well aware of their tendencies. What they don’t realize is the full cost associated with their behavior.
While likability factors heavily in the hiring process, research shows it has little to do with success on the job. Professors Steve Kaplan at the University of Chicago and Morten Sorensen at Copenhagen Business School analyzed over 2,600 ghSMART assessments of candidates for senior leadership positions and why they were hired. Several years later, they went back and assessed how the hired leaders performed based on feedback from their boards.
Kaplan and Sorensen’s findings concluded that organizations overweighted amicability in their hiring. Leaders whose greatest strengths were around decisiveness and driving performance significantly outperformed leaders who rated high on likeability traits such as consensus building and listening skills. This research is consistent with an SAS Institute study that shows leaders with high decisiveness are 12 times more likely to deliver superior performance.
The niceness trap
Turns out that likability can negatively impact a leader’s ability to get results. Likability is often associated with people who want to please. Pleasers know how to get along, go with the flow, avoid confrontation, and are skilled at reading and meeting others’ expectations. Early in a career, these traits are positive. Employees who have them are perceived as working well with lots of different people in all sorts of situations. Their bosses think they’re terrific. But the further these people climb the ladder and the more workers they manage, the more troublesome the need to please becomes.
This need to please makes leaders vulnerable to falling into the “niceness trap.” Common symptoms include:
Avoidance of conflict. The desire to avoid conflict is human. People want to be liked, and they unconsciously fear that arguments, disagreements, or negative messages will create tension with the people they have to work with on a day-to-day basis. Hank, the CEO of a rapidly growing start-up MGA, is a perfect example. Innovation is critical if his organization is going to continue to grow, but Hank’s reluctance to risk confrontation among his young team is keeping the business stuck in the status quo.
Without getting a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable, Hank will never achieve the results he wants. Unconsciously, he’s building a polite but passive culture where it’s not safe to propose ideas that others might disagree with, speak up when things aren’t working, or openly discuss conflicts within the organization.
Struggle to deliver candid feedback. Consider Marissa, a personal lines manager for an online brokerage firm. She has a strong distaste for tension and goes out of her way to avoid stirring things up. A born nurturer, she is always working to build up the individuals on her team. A believer in positive reinforcement, she’s generous with praise and always focused on what’s working well. But when it comes to a message someone might perceive as negative, Marissa holds back. Left unchecked, problems build. When finally forced to have a conversation, she tries to soften the blow and make it easier by burying the not-so-pleasant feedback between a series of compliments. As a result, the employee doesn’t hear the clear, direct input needed to improve performance.
Nice managers don’t want anyone to feel bad and will always find something to compliment. Kind managers, on the other hand, tell you what you need to know to succeed even when the news is that you’re messing up. Kind leaders know that pushing people to be their best and having difficult conversations when necessary results in much more success, and makes most people happier in the long run.
An inability to say “no.” Take Tara, an SVP of client services for a prestigious Midwest insurance broker. She lives in fear of people being disappointed in her. Not wanting to risk the disapproval of her manager or peers, she never says “no.” As a result, she and her team are stretched to the max. The department is falling short on several key goals, and Tara’s credibility is on the line. Continually shifting priorities are taking a toll on productivity and morale. Her people are beginning to burn out.
Consensus decision making. Christian, a young and upcoming agency leader, believes in transparency and fully engaging all members of the team. Wanting his people to feel valued, he leads by consensus. Everyone has a voice at the table and a vote. All ideas are discussed and given full consideration. Decisions are made based on the feelings of the group—even when those decisions may not be the best ones. The decisions are never final because they’re reevaluated every time someone has a concern. Christian is guided by his desire to protect people’s feelings rather than driving for the optimal results. His best and brightest people are frustrated by the never-ending process and what they call “decisions based on the lowest common denominator.” Two of these three employees are currently on the job market.
A high tolerance for mediocre performers. Evan, the SVP of sales for a regional commercial broker, is a perfect example. He talks a good game when it comes to upgrading the quality of the agency’s sales force, but his behavior doesn’t match his rhetoric. For months the CEO has been pressuring him to cut the cord with two producers who consistently miss their sales goals. Evan can’t seem to reconcile that two of the most likable and loyal guys on his team aren’t getting the job done. He keeps hoping the situation will get better. While he procrastinates, talk about upgrading the team has become a joke among the better performing salespeople.
Nice managers feel a strong need to be loyal to the people who have been loyal to them. But in the long run, keeping mismatched employees in a position where they’re floundering is a disservice to them and the business.
While being too nice can be taken to a fault, so can being too tough. The most effective leaders find a way to balance the constant push for results with approachability, authenticity, and well-placed empathy and respect for those they lead. They connect with stakeholders but do not worry about being liked or protecting their people from the truth, no matter how painful. Instead, they concentrate on earning their people’s support by instilling the confidence that they will lead the team to success even when that means making difficult or unpopular decisions.
These leaders don’t avoid conflict. They understand that suppressing conflict takes far more energy than dealing with it. They know how to use conflict in a productive way to surface and address issues in order to help move the organization forward.
“Agreeableness,” which links closely with the qualities we’ve been talking about, is defined by psychologists as one of the “Big Five” personality traits. Behaviors that are deeply rooted in our personality are among the toughest to change. But they can be changed if the person is sufficiently dissatisfied with their behavior.
Most leaders who suffer from “too nice” syndrome are well aware of their tendencies. What they don’t realize is the full cost associated with their behavior. Change begins by helping them understand how their actions are impacting the people around them.
When coaching a leader with “too nice” syndrome, a smart first step is a 360º assessment. Providing direct evidence from trusted colleagues helps the leader begin to see that while people appreciate their “niceness,” it is ultimately hurting relationships, damaging morale and holding the business back.
A good second step is helping the leader clarify their values and motivations. Once you identify what drives the behavior, you know where to begin focusing. For example, for some people the need to be liked and have others’ approval is intense. These feelings are often rooted in low self-esteem.
For many leaders, the path is more straightforward. Seeing how their behavior is working against their desire to be a good leader paves the way for change. Then it’s a matter of turning newfound insights into action.
Some leaders will need to acquire new skills, such as delivering difficult feedback in a constructive way. Some will need to build the mental muscle needed to say no. Others will need to experiment with new behaviors and gather proof that they can work. The key is working with the individual to build a specific action plan, holding them accountable and providing ongoing coaching where warranted.
A final word to the wise: Don’t be misled by what appears to be a quick change in mindset. Coaching people who like to please is challenging. They’ll agree with you and enthusiastically embrace the change—anything to make you happy.
Often, their words and feelings will not translate into behavioral change. Be mindful that you’re asking someone to modify something that’s been part of them their whole life. That takes time, support and persistence.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com), which works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property/casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.