Leadership   //   October 3, 2022

Why bosses can be too nice, and why it’s bad for business

Throughout the pandemic, the best bosses, as we’ve heard time and time again, are those who strive to be compassionate and flexible, who understand, sympathize with and accommodate their employees’ needs. 

Headlines like “Wanted: Business Leaders With Soft Skills Like Empathy in Post-Covid Workplace” have become all too common, while studies affirm that bad bosses lead to employees heading for the doors.

But for employers, is there such a thing as being too nice?

New York-based executive leadership and career coach Rikki Goldenberg said she believes that the too-nice boss can lead to a team that does not grow. “If you find yourself as a leader avoiding delivering feedback, skipping over potential conflict, you’re actually doing a disservice to those that you work with,” she said. “You’re so focused on not rocking the boat and keeping the status quo that people get bored. What makes an OK boss into an incredible leader is their ability to recognize the potential in their team and to push them to get there, with support.”

Being nice as a leader is easy, but shouldn’t be confused with being kind, stressed Susanne Carpenter, a leadership consultant in Boston. “Nice means avoiding difficult conversations; kindness means leaning into them with compassion and empathy,” she said.

Being nice does not necessarily equate to being a pushover or people pleasing, suggested Tiffany E. Slater, CEO of HR consultancy HR TailorMade in the St. Louis area. Rather, “it could simply be the difference between treating people with humanity and being a bit of an a-hole,” she said. Slater said she believes a boss can be nice and still have respectful relationships with employees. As she put it, “Those team members — the ones who choose to work for nice leaders — tend to work harder with their leader as opposed to working hard to leave their leader.”

That’s not to say that being nice can’t lead to an employee assuming a supervisor is chump. Slater said that nice leaders must learn to balance compassion with firmness. “When we build relationships with our team, we have to make it clear that we have expectations and that we are all working towards a common goal for which we will all be held accountable — with a smile and compassion,” she said. 

"You're so focused on not rocking the boat and keeping the status quo that people get bored. What makes an OK boss into an incredible leader is their ability to recognize the potential in their team and to push them to get there, with support."
Rikki Goldenberg, New York-based executive leadership and career coach.

Will Cannon, founder and CEO of software company Signaturely in the Los Angeles area, said that bosses should strive to be firm but also fair, providing their employees with guidance and support — and knowing when to draw the line. “A delicate balance needs to be struck to create a healthy workplace environment,” he said. 

Communication is key, Cannon said. “This means being clear about expectations, giving feedback regularly and being open to hearing feedback from employees,” he said. “Of course, there will always be times when a boss needs to be firm and set boundaries. However, I think it’s essential to approach these situations with compassion and understanding.”

Josh Craven, CEO of mortgage company Sprint Funding in the San Diego area, said that while every workplace and every boss-employee relationship are unique, a few general guidelines may help employers who want to strike the right balance between being nice and being firm:

Be clear about your expectations

Employees must know what is expected of them in terms of their job duties and how you expect them to conduct themselves at work. If you want employees to be friendly and polite to customers, communicate that expectation. On the other hand, if you prefer a more formal workplace where employees stick to business, ensure they know that as well. The key is to be clear about your expectations so that employees can adjust their behavior accordingly.

Don’t be a pushover

While it’s important to be compassionate and understanding, as a manager you also need to be firm when setting boundaries. If an employee is not meeting your expectations, don’t avoid discussing it with them. It’s important to nip problems in the bud before they become bigger issues.

Be consistent

Employees will quickly become frustrated if they see a boss enforcing rules for some but not others. Maintaining a respectful, professional work environment, remaining consistent in your expectations, and enforcing rules are key.

Be open to feedback

Employees should feel they can come to their manager with any concerns or suggestions. If a boss is closed off to feedback, he or she is likely to miss out on some great ideas. Employees who don’t feel like their voices are being heard are more likely to become disengaged and unproductive.

Model the behavior you want to see in your employees

As the boss, you set the tone for the entire workplace. If you want your employees to be respectful and professional, ensure that you are modeling that behavior yourself. Employees will be much more likely to follow your lead if they see you setting the right example.

Three questions with Tyneeha Rivers, chief people officer, Curaleaf

You joined cannabis dispensary Curaleaf in May as its first chief people officer. What initiatives have you prioritized?

It’s important to create a culture where employees can see a trajectory in their roles, so they know they don’t just have a job, they have a career. I’m bringing on a vice president of learning development, and we’re going to create a curriculum, in which we provide our employees with career and learning paths. So if you start off as a store associate, and aspire to be a team lead, we have a certain track that will take you down that path. We’ll have another curriculum for those who may not be interested in leadership, but want to continue to grow as an individual contributor. We can provide the tools to be successful in that respect.

What unique challenges does the cannabis industry have when it comes to attracting and retaining talent?

It’s important to educate people about cannabis, for those who may not be as familiar with the industry, as we’ve continued to change the narrative. We attract a lot of candidates that are excited about our industry, but we need to talk to other communities about the benefits of our products. That’s one of the reasons I got into the cannabis space, because I believe in the power of cannabis and how it can change lives. I used to struggle with anxiety and insomnia. I tried so many different medications. None of them worked and I was introduced to cannabis as a patient. It changed my life. I now sleep seven to eight hours straight. The more people can understand how cannabis can change lives, the better.

In a year’s time, what would be the No. 1 thing you would like to have achieved in your role at Curaleaf?

I would love for Curaleaf to be an employer of choice and be named a ‘Best Place to Work.’ Our CEO understands the importance of culture and protecting it, so a year from now, we’re going to see the investments we’ve made in our people pay off. All the employees who join our organization will have development plans and learning paths. We’re also introducing a mentorship program, where we’re partnering junior team members with senior level executives to help them in their career, which goes hand in hand with continuing to hire more women overall and at leadership level as well. We’re already a diverse organization and want to build on that even more. — MaryLou Costa

By the numbers

  • Meetings cost large companies up to $100 million in wasted hours.
    [Source of data: Otter.ai report.]
  • Only 2 in 10 U.S. workers feel connected to their organization’s culture.
    [Source of data: Gallup report.]

What else we’ve covered

  • As companies become more transparent about salaries, employees are going to have questions. Here’s how to prepare.
  • Well over two-thirds of employees surveyed in the U.S. and U.K. said they do not report which days they work outside of their home state or country to HR.
  • Is the jukebox the next water cooler? Companies have been adding them to their offices to boost connections among employees.
  • Commercial buildings are a major culprit in excessive water usage. Some companies are stepping up their efforts to conserve.
  • Meta is pushing forward with its remote, decentralized working model. That’s a strategy that won’t be without its headaches. But Meta’s senior leadership is laser-focused on ironing out any inevitable kinks.
  • Many believe the lack of in-office time means younger managers are losing out on learning vital skills. But experts say it will be a different style of management from what we know that will help companies be successful in the future.
  • An increasing number of employers are considering how office design and layout can quell employee anxiety about leaving their Covid-19 bubbles.

What we’re reading

  • General Motors is the latest company to get employee backlash over its return-to-office policy. [WSJ.]
  • Nurses in the U.K. are being forced to quit their jobs due to terrible salaries, and are taking jobs in bars and shops. [Guardian]