In the famous words of Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," this is especially true in the business world. Just 100 years ago, the UK and its businesses looked very different than they do today. There was still mass unemployment and most jobs were manual labor. This meant all a business had to do to maintain a workforce was create jobs and pay the bare minimum.
When the choice is between tough, basic, repetitive low-paid jobs or poverty - businesses didn't have to worry about employee engagement, employee wellbeing, or employee retention.
Of course, today things are very different due to a variety of factors. The main factors are:
Technology has actually created more jobs - in 2022, for the first time since records began, there were more job vacancies than unemployed people in the UK
Jobs are more creative and more service-based - If your employees aren't happy and engaged, they won't produce the quality of work your business needs
Employees have lots of protection from the law - If you don't look after an employee you can be penalised for it, if an employee doesn't like working for you - they can play the system
Technology and lifestyle changes are leading to increasing levels of poor physical and mental health
Due to these reasons and many more, the old way of doing things in business doesn't work. If you think just providing a job with pay is enough to attract and retain the people you need, like many other businesses recently, you're going to have a rude awakening.
Today, businesses are having to think about how they do things differently. They're having to focus on creating engaging places to work. They're having to put more time and resources into employee support and development. Billions are being spent on understanding and crafting culture.
Ultimately, there's a lot of focus being placed on leaders and managers. And rightly so, it's not the company values on the wall in head office or the 'brand guidelines' guidelines document in the draw that creates your culture, but the actual way leaders and managers compose themselves.
Generally speaking, the old way a leader or manager was encouraged to compose themselves was to create maximum efficiency in their teams. I.e., use your position of power to ensure everyone is working to the highest standard for as long as possible and to ensure any issues are rectified quickly. During the industrial revolution period where most work was factory-based and jobs were scarce, this tyrannical approach was effective. Today, it couldn't be less effective. Today, this approach leads to high employee turnover, high levels of sickness, and low employee productivity.
Today, the emphasis is on being a good manager, developing people, and creating a culture where people want to work. This is only a good thing as, when done right, it means you not only attract and retain the right people but that they are innovative, and hardworking of their own accord. BUT, and here's a big BUT, there's a risk with this new focus. It can lead to leaders and managers prioritising a certain behaviour that can ruin what would otherwise be great teams and businesses. This is the trait of being too nice. Considering the political messaging in society today, just writing that sentence - even though I know it to be accurate and I'm going to explain why in this post - creates a quick pulse of fear in my nervous system. Writing this sentence quickly conjures images of people commenting saying 'You can never be too nice!', 'In a world where you can be anything, be kind' and a newspaper headline stating 'Better Happy Founder Suggests Managers Should Stop Being Nice'.
Me feeling like this when writing this sentence is a good explanation of why so many leaders and managers are finding themselves in this position. Modern political messaging in the UK generally states that 'The number one unwritten rule is that you should not upset or offend anyone and if you do, your life and career can be swept from under you.' And there is a whole hoard of people sitting at computers waiting to jump all over anyone that says or does anything that could be deemed as being offensive. So people are learning it's safe to just be quiet. It's safer not to say anything that might be seen by someone as controversial. It's safer to just be nice. But let's look at 3 damaging things that can and do happen to a team, business, and culture, when the general modus operandi utilised by the leadership and management team, is being nice.
1 - Negative/Toxic Behaviour Goes Unchallenged
It's virtually impossible to challenge or address someone's behaviour without risking offending them. The very nature of the conversation is confrontational. Of course, it can be done in a sensitive way, but ultimately, if someone is behaving in a way that goes against the values of your team or business, that is detrimental to your team or business, they are going to need to be told it's not ok and it needs to change. Here's the problem. If a person is being negative, lazy or toxic, but they're not doing anything offensive or that could be deemed as gross misconduct, the nice manager is going to struggle to address that behaviour. Yes, there are suggested ways of addressing this behaviour in a coaching style format that guides the person to recognise their behaviour is detrimental to the team or business, but in all honesty, the nice manager is just going to avoid it. Because it feels safer to be comfortably uncomfortable. The major problem of course is the impact toxic people have on the rest of a team and business. When the behaviour of toxic or negative people isn't addressed, they learn it's ok. Worse than this - and this is something I have personal experience of in the army - when the toxic person is left in role and their behaviour isn't addressed, at some point, they're going to have to be promoted (because if they're when others are, you might offend them) at which point they not only learn that their behaviour is ok, they learn their behaviour is beneficial.
To summarise this point, there is a famous saying that goes 'All it takes for bad people to succeed is for good people to do nothing.' I'm not suggesting negative or toxic employees are necessarily bad people. More often than not, they are people that are lacking in self-confidence and in an environment that's reinforcing poor behaviour.
When it comes to business perhaps a modernised version of this saying should be 'All it takes for negative/toxic employees to thrive is for nice leaders/managers to do nothing.'
2 - Goals/Objectives Aren't Set or Are Played Down
The nice leader or manager is going to have a tough time with goals or objectives. In the business context, I prefer objectives in the personal context, I prefer goals. The nice manager or leader is going to struggle with these at both the business and personal team level.
I will use the term goals for the rest of this post but I'm referring to both.
Let's establish two important truths about goals first.
1 - Humans feel true happiness and fulfilment when they are making progress towards goals. Teams and businesses feel good and prosper when they are making progress towards goals.
2 -Goals are by their very nature stressful. To improve something you have to change it and to change something you have to apply a level of stress to it.
So here we have a clear dilemma for the nice manager or leader. In the medium to long run, if you want to support the health, happiness, and prosperity of your teams and business you have to guide them in making progress towards goals. But if you want to help them make progress towards goals you have to expose them, regularly to short-term stress. Here's another fact about humans we don't talk about much. We're lazy. Although our history and evolution is rife with hardship and slave labour like conditions, the truth is give us the opportunity and we'll usually revert to laziness. There's a reason for this which is hidden in our history. For most of human history we've had to work extremely hard to find limited provisions to keep us alive. So it's made sense that whenever we might have the opportunity to conserve energy we should do exactly that. In the past moving towards a new goal often meant the difference between life and death. In todays world that's rarely the case.
Consider your team or business. A good leader or manager should guide teams to set goals and objectives that stretch them and grow the business. For the team this means short term exposure to stress and more effort (maybe physical, mental or both). Without presenting this to them in the right way or getting them involved, the chances are some or all of your team are going to resist new goals because they're a bit stressful and a bit more effort than what's already being done. They might resist them completely or argue for them to be so easy that they become uninspiring.
The same is true on an individual level. A good manager in the modern world is there to help team members grow and develop. This should be happening initially to get team members up to a good level of competence professionally (but also support on personal goals) and continue after to help them continue to grow and thrive. To help someone grow is to challenge them, to challenge their current way of thinking and to expose them to a healthy amount of stress. By doing this, you also help your teams develop an essential skill, which is a healthy relationship with stress. Again, the nice manager is going to find this difficult because highlighting areas for improvement and exposing people to stress doesn't feel 'nice.'
So, the nice manager and the nice leader are more likely to guide teams to setting goals that feel easy and safe or not set them at all. In the medium to long run, this creates an uninspiring environment. Your creative and driven team members will either learn that it's best to just do what is required of them or they will leave for other more inspiring teams and businesses.
3 - Say Yes To Everything - Nothing Gets Done Well
Finally, we are faced with the challenge of challenging work. In any business, of any size, of any industry, there is always more work than can possibly be done. This is the nature of life and the nature of business. Thanks to the developments in technology, this volume of work and speed of change has increased exponentially over the last 10 years.
When there is an infinite amount of work that needs to be done and an incredibly fast pace of change going on, leaders and managers need to prioritise. Although prioritising sounds like the easy and obvious thing to do when it comes to business, psychologically it creates challenges for leaders and managers, especially the ones who are consciously or subconsciously prioritising being nice.
To prioritise is to say no. To prioritise is to make a decision that others might disagree with. To prioritise is to risk making a decision that could later be deemed as a mistake.
So prioritising certainly isn't easy. Possibly the most challenging part for the nice leader or manager is the saying no component. Once again, the very nature of saying no is confrontational. If the word confrontational instantly spikes images of heated debates and aggression in your mind, that's a sign that you have a fear around conflict (I'm speaking from personal experience). If you have a fear around conflict (very common in the nice manager/leader), you're going to struggle with saying no to or challenging people. I know from personal experience and working with hundreds of managers that this is a commonplace problem in businesses. The discomfort around challenging or saying no is so prevalent that managers just find ways to try and do everything instead of prioritising. Managers would rather be overwhelmed and burnt out than expose themselves to the discomfort that comes with prioritising work.
Think about what happens in a business when managers aren't actively prioritising and challenging work that is being passed down to them from the leadership aspects of the business. The leadership team's role is to guide the direction of the company and let's be honest, create as much good work as can be positively handled by the workforce. The manager's role, therefore, is to act as a filter and guidance system to the leadership team. They should stop work coming through that isn't appropriate or that can't be completed at current capacity. They should inform the leadership team what's working, what isn't, and what would need to be dropped for that new thing to be taken on. When this happens, the leadership team develops a clear understanding of the capacity of their workforce and can therefore make informed decisions.
When this doesn't happen - and trust me, it's more common than you believe that it doesn't - a false economy is created. The management teams say yes to everything. The teams are working beyond capacity, quality is dropping, and people are getting fed up. The leadership team thinks everything is going well and that they can maintain or increase the amount of work and initiatives they are passing down. Through people having a fear of confrontation, or people preferring to say yes over going through the short term discomfort of saying 'no' or 'we're going to have to think about if this is possible at the moment', the whole business is being set up to fail. This is what we're currently seeing play out in our schools and NHS.
By saying yes to everything, you are indirectly saying no to things. You're saying no to the quality of work or service that can be delivered. You're saying no to protecting your own work-life balance and health. You're saying no to protecting the work-life balance and health of your teams and your saying no to prioritising your culture over the volume of work that can be done. Here lies the crux of the issue. Even though the outcomes of saying no to all of the above are clearly far worse than saying the short term discomfort of saying no to or challenging workload, it's easier to say indirectly say no because it avoids any confrontation.
What we're currently going through is an overcorrection. Not too long ago many businesses and managers were tyrannical. Employees could be and were exploited by those who controlled wealth and markets. Today thankfully, in the UK at least we couldn't be any further from that. But, as discussed in this post, we're creating problems for the health of ourselves and our businesses by going 'too far' the other way and being too nice. Whether it's through fear of being the way we used to be, fear of being offensive, or just a plain old dislike for confrontation, being too nice is bad for health and bad for business.
The aim of this post isn't to jar you into realising you're being too nice and leaving with the intention of changing the way you do everything. The fact that you are nice demonstrates that you are a good person and an existing or potential great manager or leader. The aim of this post is to highlight how your tendency to be nice can damage the health and performance of you, your team, and your business. You can have too much of a good thing. Challenging difficult behaviour, setting meaningful goals, and prioritising work, like any skill in life, isn't easy. You're not going to walk away from this post and just do all of that stuff because you understand it logically makes sense. But by making it a priority, you can begin to take consistent little steps. Put the pressure on yourself to address something you would normally let slip. Put the pressure on yourself to take a step back and think before saying yes to something you know needs more thought. Get your team together and have a conversation about what you would like to achieve this year if fear and self-doubt didn't get in the way. Set some personal challenging goals and talk to your team about them. Even if you don't achieve them 100%, celebrate the progress you made.
I want you to carry on being nice! You wouldn't be reading this and certainly wouldn't have got this far if you're not nice. Being nice isn't a bad thing; it's a good thing. I just don't want your niceness become detrimental to you or your team. So be nice, but put some pressure on yourself to do what's been discussed. Your future self and team will thank you for it.
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Mike Jones Better Happy Founder
Mike founded Better Happy in 2018.
He now works with a variety of businesses ranging from small accountancies up to large organisations such as Travelodge on improving employee happiness. Mike's vision and the vision of Better Happy is 'Every employee happy, every business thriving'