This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Good leaders tend to be skilled at satisfying their customers and supporting their colleagues. But if these positive approaches are taken too far they can backfire, and strong leaders can turn into weak people pleasers. Leaders who try too hard to be “nice” can also come across as lacking integrity. Their facial microexpressions and other physical reactions alert colleagues that they’re not really on the level. That’s especially true when leaders try to avoid seeming negative or dissatisfied, instead of being clear about what’s gone wrong or what needs to change.
It’s important to know what to do when you feel pressured to be nice but you really need to be straightforward and unambiguous. Here are four examples of situations that are naturally challenging to people-pleasing leaders, and suggestions to help you handle them.
When you have to make a decision. When employees pitch you, slow things down by announcing that you’ll need to do research, consult with experts or even ask your Magic 8-Ball so you don’t have to feel pressured to answer right away. Express gratitude for everyone’s thoughtful contributions, tell them when you expect to make the decision and then figure out what you think is best. Consider asking a colleague to be an accountability partner or hiring an executive coach to help you work through your concerns and conduct any necessary due diligence.
For instance, one CEO cared so much about being encouraging and supportive that he had a hard time letting employees know when their ideas and plans weren’t on track. So he teamed up with a member of his executive team who had a knack for asking thoughtful questions. The CEO then used these questions to challenge proposals and ask for substantiation. Examples included: What’s the likely impact of that plan of action? How will it generate the results you’ve said you want? What’s the cost of doing A rather than B? Do we have resources and people available who are qualified to lead these efforts?
When you need to create progress. If things seem stalled and you’re not seeing much forward action, it could be because you’re trying to satisfy your team members’ interests rather than requiring them to carry out plans that will actually generate results. Step back and remember that you are the human representative of the business. It’s actually a ding on you if there’s no progress, and people may see you as weak and ineffective. Instead of focusing on individual preferences, emphasize what the company’s needs are, and be specific about each person’s role in meeting those needs.
A C-level executive I worked with would change her mind midstream after meeting one-on-one with members of her team. They tried to make side arrangements with her to gain more authority or status, and to influence where the company was going. She wanted to satisfy each person and avoid the conflict she feared would occur if she took a stand. We got a lot more traction when she started holding group meetings and I facilitated the discussions. We fleshed out the operational plans in enough detail that everyone understood their part and agreed to move forward together.
When you’re dealing with a problem employee. If you don’t enforce work requirements or give people the feedback they need to do better, unsuccessful employees may get away with bad behavior, and good employees might start to wonder why they bother. To strengthen yourself, identify both the hard and soft costs of the problematic behaviors, and share that data when you explain why things have to change.
Instead of applying performance standards consistently, a client’s operations director was keeping on employees who were friends with other employees. He “didn’t want to make waves” with these people or with the others who cared about them. First, we verified that the performance standards were fair and reasonable and then calculated what the financial gains would be if those standards were met. I coached him through the process of explaining to the staff why the standards were reasonable and necessary, the extent of the financial impact was and what individual employees needed to change.
When you’re communicating tough content. You don’t have to be mean to say no, or declare, “This is not going well, and it’s your fault!” When you make this point kindly, most people will understand. You can explain, “I’m afraid that won’t be practical for us given the budget/it’s outside our current capabilities/our research shows that our customers want the opposite.” Or you could unemotionally describe what’s going wrong: “I’ve reviewed our performance against target, and it looks like the current path is not matching with the goals and milestones we set. Here are three places we’re off. Please tell me if you’re seeing something different, and what we can do about the shortfall.”
I currently work with a CEO who is regularly disappointed because she assumes that good, successful people will naturally do the thing she wants from them and shouldn’t need much critical feedback. When she tells me about employees who don’t collaborate well or are not on plan, I ask if she has been as clear and direct with them as she has been with me about what she expects them to do, both individually and together. I also ask if her facial expressions and her tone match her level of concern, to ensure that her team members can interpret her intentions correctly.
The bottom line is that you don’t need to act like a tough guy or a mean boss to improve performance. You just need to focus on what actually moves the business forward. You can be kind by treating each person as the individual they are and giving them the clear direction, resources and support they need to be successful and feel good about the job.
Onward and upward —