Managers can be "too nice"


He’s a nice guy and ironically, that is his biggest flaw,” a manager told me recently. She described a senior manager, who was extremely good at the technical aspects of his job, but who avoided conflict. 

“We’re at our wits end,” another manager from a different organization confided. “We’ve gone in to see our Director separately and alone, to tell her that one of our peer supervisors is really causing problems. She just seems to defend him and never appears to be doing anything about it. We are now starting to fear increased turnover and frankly, we are sick of picking up his slack.” 

In my experience, the “too nice” managers greatly outnumber the “too tough” managers in organizations.  And the damage they cause is unintentional but deadly, just the same. Ironically, the very reactions they wish to avoid—angry, de-motivated, hurt employees—they end up causing anyway. 

So, how do you change a boss who is too nice for his or her own good? First, the person has to realize that his or her behavior is causing the very grief he or she wants to avoid. For instance, you could say, “Pat, I know you value harmony and teamwork in the workplace, and I know you would want to know if you were doing something that was eroding that.  Some of our best employees feel that you are not treating them fairly. They are becoming de-motivated, angry and resentful because Tom is allowed to take advantage of the system and it is affecting their productivity. When they have come to you about this in the past, nothing has been done, and they are looking to you as the leader to deal with this situation.” 

Let’s assume that Pat realizes something must be done but doesn’t have an idea how to begin. Pat is worried that the situation will escalate and Tom will either be more difficult to manage, or he’ll stomp out the door. If you are Pat’s coach, you can suggest these steps: 

  1. Meet with Tom to clearly state what is expected. No beating around the bush—just a straightforward conversation about his duties and responsibilities as well as any problems he may have meeting those expectations. Nice managers are easy to manipulate. If he blames others for his problems, nudge him back on track with, “What can you do, to make sure you do get what you need? You are still accountable for your own results, regardless of what others do.”
  2. Set up a progress update with Tom at regular intervals, say, once a week. During those sessions (which could be as short as fifteen minutes), Tom should report on his activities. This may include keeping notes, tracking actions or showing samples of his work. The manager should not play mommy or daddy. In other words, under no circumstances should the manager “chase” a poor performer. Tom must take the responsibility to come to these meetings prepared and report to the manager. If he doesn’t show up or doesn’t report as expected, the pressure should be increased—tighter timelines, more frequent meetings, and firmer conversations.
  3. If Tom doesn’t improve and complaints continue, it’s time to talk consequences. This is the fairest, “nicest” thing you can do for someone. It sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Think about it: Is it kinder to tell Tom the consequences of his continued behavior--so he can turn things around before it’s too late-- or just sneak up on him and fire him (or worse—demote him)?
“Nice” managers often tell everyone but the person who needs to know. Sometimes problem employees suffer career stagnation, loss of credibility, become the office joke, or lose their jobs. Is this nice?

The right thing to do is to tell people the truth and put their fate in their own hands. Another plus, is that people who knew what the consequences were before they got fired, rarely sue. Surprised people sue.
    4.   If the manager can’t bring herself to deal with a serious employee problem, she has a
performance problem, herself and needs to change or step down. The collateral damage to good employees is significant. They lose their drive and motivation and who can blame them? “Why should I work hard,” they grumble, “when he gets away with murder.” The best employees leave in frustration and the mediocre employees hang around, because they’ve found a safe haven. That’s the kiss of death for productivity and the finger of blame points straight to the top. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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