Workplace Wisdom

How “Clear and Compelling” Outdoes “Nice and Neutral”

It’s always risky for employees when managers are “too nice” and don’t give clear and helpful feedback about expectations, preferences, or necessary improvements. In effect, these managers stand by as employees go off the track rather than helping them stay on. Even though this behavior usually happens with the best of intentions, it is almost always counterproductive. Below are some typical scenarios:

  • Some managers don’t want to upset a good employee over something that’s not really a big deal. This view is particularly common when “good” managers in “toxic” environments try to buffer their people from difficult or dangerous colleagues and conditions. The manager thinks: “How can I possibly criticize their work when they’re already under so much pressure?”
  • Other managers are so grateful and relieved if a failing employee does manage some performance improvement that they forget that good, solid performance is necessary, and that just a little bit better is usually not enough.
  • Caring managers can be so wary of hurting anyone’s feelings that they include everyone’s view, even though extreme inclusiveness weakens decision-making by counting inexpert and inexperienced opinions. Similarly, they may resist taking any action if the team has not reached consensus although it’s rarely productive to wait until the least committed or most fearful team member has come around to the majority (or the leader’s) point of view.

The Department of Lost Causes

Good people tend to believe that a group that works together will always figure things out for the better, and that people will naturally step up and improve. That may be true when you have enough time and resources and very little pressure. But you can’t shield people from natural consequences forever. And if you only shield them and don’t develop them, you actually deny them the opportunity to rise to the occasion, and to improve and grow.

The risk for employees is that a too-patient manager is usually too patient only until the dam breaks — or the camel’s back breaks — and the manager has had enough. In many cases, though, a continuing sense of responsibility or organizational constraints preserve the relationship anyway. The frustrated manager may end up tuning out the legitimate needs of other people and situations, stalling productivity even further.

Directing the Crew to a Smoother Track

In the long run, clarity and kindness are more effective than just caring and concern. So instead of being “too nice,” be sober and analytical and identify the business’s real needs. If you were trying to hire someone for this job today, would you actually hire the current incumbents? Do they have the potential to develop into the role, and to continue to progress for at least 12 to 18 months?

Make sure they agree with you about what they’re expected to accomplish. If there are expectations for how they’re to accomplish it, make sure that they agree with that too — don’t assume that they understand what you mean. And then check that their behaviors match their claims. Make a concrete plan with milestones so you can actually track their performance in 30/60/90 days or three/six/nine months. That way, you — and they — can see their trajectory clearly.

If you’re too afraid of ever hurting anyone’s feelings, try to rein in your sense of personal sympathy in favor of structured, disciplined thoughts about how to help employees be fully successful. Being less directly involved in their challenges or woes doesn’t force you to be less compassionate to them as human beings. What do your employees need to progress? Do they need more than you’ve been giving them? More than you can give them?

No matter how “nice” you want to be, when there’s tangible success, you can support more people through the process of learning what they need to do.

Onward and upward,

LK

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