Everyone wants a nice boss. And if a nice boss is one who respects me and my work, challenges me to get better and wants to see me grow as both a professional and a leader, then I’m for it too.

Just because you have a nice boss, doesn’t mean you have a good boss

But too many people look at a hard-charging boss and jump to the conclusion that he or she is a tyrant.

Here’s what these people don’t get: just because you have a nice boss, doesn’t mean you have a good boss.

I’ve seen plenty of bosses who might talk the talk about demanding exceptional performance but, all too often, they just want employees to like them. What’s more, they want people to speak well of them, to be “friends” with them. This type of boss is afraid that if they set high performance targets and challenge their staff to meet and surpass them, their esteem will slip. As a result, they ease up on their expectations, sometimes without realising it. Not surprisingly, performance falters. 

These immensely successful bosses don’t care much about being liked

Some of the best leaders I’ve seen, whether in research or coaching, come to work with a razor-sharp focus on results. These immensely successful bosses don’t care much about being liked. Their expectations are both staggering and non-negotiable — and their teams know it.

Take, for example, US real estate guru Bill Sanders. “Everybody knew that Bill demanded results,” said Ronald Blankenship, former chairman and CEO of Verde Realty, a real estate investment trust and long-time associate of Sanders. “If you were going to work with him, you needed to be prepared to make that your primary focus.”

These great leaders are not afraid to lay down the law — they don’t hesitate for an instant. And paradoxically, their toughness, accompanied by their adherence to their unique and inspiring visions, often generates more esteem among their reports, not less.

How do you know if you’re falling prey to the Nice Boss Syndrome?

In fact, it generates something greater than mere esteem among most employees: A profound respect, loyalty, even love.

Of course, being tough doesn’t mean being offensive. How do you know if you’re falling prey to the Nice Boss Syndrome? Consider these questions — and keep track of your yesses.

  • During the past year, have you changed your expectations for someone more than once after he or she failed to perform or meet your standards?
  • During the last year, have you failed to follow up and punish bad behaviour?
  • Do you sometimes grant employees bonuses or other special compensation even after they have failed to meet their goals — just because they “tried hard”?
  • Do you fail to set clear, meaningful goals for your team members? Clear goals are specific, measurable, attainable, and come with a deadline; vague goals don’t.
  • Do you tend to withhold negative feedback for fear of upsetting or alienating someone?
  • When you do deliver negative feedback, do you find yourself softening it?
  • Do your bosses or fellow managers perceive you as soft and overly accommodating?
  • Do the people who work for you have a tendency to rest on their laurels when they do succeed (for instance, do they think that good work is enough, no striving for the next goal)?

If you find yourself answering “yes” to three or more of these questions, you might be suffering from Nice Boss Syndrome. In that case, it’s time to change your ways. If you want to be respected, not just liked:

  • Keep an “expectations logbook”, laying out performance expectations for each of your staff, your ongoing daily observations about their performance, and any actions you’ve taken to enforce your expectations.
  • For each of your reports, revisit the goals you’ve set. Are they ambitious or aggressive enough?  Are they clear and quantifiable? Don’t downgrade just because someone failed to meet a goal.
  • Is there a way to “gamify” performance expectations and make them public or transparent among your team? Doing so might foster healthy competition while making it harder for you to wiggle out if you need to hold people accountable.
  • Practice delivering negative feedback: Avoid emotion and stick to the facts; flag that negative feedback is coming so it’s not a surprise; focus on how to do it better next time rather than just critiquing the past.

“Nice” bosses may feel good about themselves, but they don’t get world-class results. Demanding bosses do. And if you work for a nice boss, don’t get too self-satisfied. If you aren’t getting better at whatever you do for a living, and learning and growing in the process, you’re not just standing still, you’re really falling behind.

In the modern business world – where competition can come from anyone and anywhere, anytime – just getting by is not a winning formula.

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His new book is Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016).

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