August 2, 2017
Ken is a senior manager at a major company. By all accounts, he’s pleasant and agreeable to work with. Everyone at the company thinks he’s a nice guy.
At first glance, this would seem to be a good thing. Research led by Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy has shown that leaders who primarily express warmth are rated more effective than leaders who primarily express competence and strength. Ken’s strengths include harmony and empathy, and these attributes help him build strong working relationships.
However, “nice,” like any virtue, becomes a liability if it is overused. In Ken’s case, his drive to be amicable has created lopsided leadership, and it is negatively impacting the performance of his team and the organization.
Specifically, there are two negative consequences to being “too nice” as a manager:
Most of Ken’s workweek is filled with back-to-back-to-back meetings. The meetings usually stop at 6 p.m. Then, as Ken puts it, “I can start getting my real work done.”
Ken’s experience is not unusual. According to a 2014 Bain study, executives spend an average of 40% (two full days every week) attending meetings. Bain also found that 15% of an organization’s total collective time is spent in meetings.
Ken would never tolerate a blatant misuse of his organization’s money. Yet, he’s an accomplice in misappropriating an even scarcer resource: time. Ken and his colleagues tolerate and perpetuate mediocre meetings. They have a culture where meetings start late, lack clear agendas, and have no real follow-up.
Ken is concerned about the “optics of not being a team player.” However, by saying yes to attending every meeting, he’s essentially saying no to the most important parts of his job: strategizing, prioritizing, and coaching. Being nice is keeping Ken from doing the work that matters most.
One of Ken’s core values is fairness. He feels that if a decision is going to affect people, they should have a say and a vote in the choice being made. This democratic ideal sounds great and works great—in theory. However, in practice, it can make things horribly inefficient.
Ken and his peers lack clarity and discipline around decision making. Ken describes his decision-making process as “seeking consensus,” but it’s better described as bogus consensus. He confuses coming to consensus with coming to agreement. Ken thinks that everyone should agree on everything, no matter how little or big.
Real consensus is designed to give people within a community a voice among a group of peers and a way to value their voices and decisions equally. In the consensus process, there are three decision options:
The consensus process can be a terrific way to create cohesion and commitment. But before it’s used, a group needs to understand its purpose and its process. By design, consensus is deliberately methodical and slow, as it’s designed for matters of utmost importance.
In day-to-day business operations, perpetual consensus is not realistic. Not everything has to be consented to by everyone.
Being “nice” has its place. But it shouldn’t replace the bold work of leadership. Managers must have the nerve to defend time so that people can focus on the things that matter. They also need to be brave enough to make gutsy decisions. The paradox leaders face is having both the courage to speak the truth and the skill to do it tactfully.