Everybody likes to be liked. And unless you’re the type of boss who revels in tyranny, it’s only natural to seek the favor of your underlings. But there’s a big difference between engaging with employees and fawning over them.
In an era when the virtues of a collegial and collaborative environment are widely espoused, there’s guilt associated with being a strong-handed boss. Managers are often afraid to pull rank for fear they’ll fall out of grace with their reports and spoil team camaraderie if they’re not nice. "So many leaders, supervisors, and bosses suffer from a nice-guy conflict," says Bruce Tulgand, author of It's Okay to Be the Boss: The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need. "Managers are afraid that people will think they’re a jerk."
Quite frankly, being nice is overrated. In fact, a 2011 study, "Do Nice Guys—and Gals—Really Finish Last?" posits that disagreeable people are more successful. The study, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that disagreeable people (especially men) earn more money and are perceived as better leaders. The research has too often been used to draw the conclusion that being mean is a good thing, says study co-author Beth A. Livingston of Cornell University. Which isn’t necessarily the case. Rather, the lesson here is that some people could stand to be less nice.
"Disagreeableness is a multifaceted trait," says Livingston. Less agreeable people are generally "people who don’t really care what you think." Unconcerned with stepping on toes or being unpopular, they cut a clear path to the brass ring and make more decisive leaders—which is especially important because building consensus often doesn't translate to success.
One HR exec at a tech company tells the story of acquiring a startup with a culture that was so consensus-driven that they couldn't decide on which features to cut in order to keep projects on schedule and budget. "Products were delayed, but according to them they had the ‘best culture’ in the world," he says.
Less-agreeable people are also more likely to advocate for themselves and for others—a huge part of being a leader. A moderately disagreeable person might have the attitude, "I’m not going to step on people willy-nilly, but I’m not going to let people step on me, either," says Livingston.
Nice people tend to be too considerate and afraid to initiate structure, which can be trouble for a startup trying to establish itself as a legitimate business. Livingston cited Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg as a good example of someone who realized that if he wanted to continue as the creative, likable boss in flip-flops, he needed to have a bad cop around to bust some heads. "He hired [Sheryl Sandberg] from Google, and she whipped everybody into shape. They were pretty chaotic before that."
Even in these kindler, more collaborative times, someone has to set priorities, pull the plug on an unprofitable project, or fire someone who’s not pulling his weight. If the reins lay in your hands, here are some tips to help you tighten your hold without being labeled a meanie.
Don’t Be Weak
Many bosses are reluctant managers because they’re afraid to come off as jerks, says Tulgan. "Really, if employees think a boss is a jerk, it’s when they’re too weak." Weakling managers don’t take the time to manage on a daily basis. They let small problems build up into big problems. They pretend to be friends, but when things go south they show their true colors. And the only time they own their authority is when they’re angry with someone. "Be brave enough to own your authority before things go wrong," says Tulgan.
Work it Out
"Don’t fall for the myth of the natural leader," says Tulgan. "If you want to be in good shape, you have to train every day." Talk to people one-on-one, understand what their problems are, and remind them of how their role fits into the greater mission at hand. The big mistake that managers make, says Tulgan, is waiting until they have to give bad news or make a hard decision to start managing. They haven’t laid the groundwork. "If the only time you manage is when you have bad news, then every time they see you coming they’ll say ‘Oh no, here he comes.’"
Structure is not a dirty word to employees. In many cases, they crave it. Philadelphia-based knowledge network startup, Quewey, recently brought on a CEO and the organizational changes have been welcomed by the group. "We realized that we needed a pointed decision maker," says Michael Magill, of Quewey's business development and finance. "A lot of day-to-day decisions come up that don’t seem like big decisions, but they really mold your strategy. At a certain point, younger workers will begin to wonder who is responsible for managing the overall direction, message, and strategy of a business." Magill says that having a defined leader has helped people understand their roles, set the founder's vision in sight, streamline processes, and increase delegation. And projects that would have otherwise remained in the brainstorming stage actually see action.
Managers sometimes struggle with rewarding employees, fearing that others will feel passed over, like when giving out raises or offering a better office space. "Let the performance be the arbiter—unless you’re running a commune," says Tulgan. If you keep close track of each person’s performance and what’s going on with the team, decisions will be respected. Tulgan says that leaders need to also show employees that they will help them earn promotions and find success.
Separate Wheat From The Chaff
The same goes for firing someone who’s dragging down the team. If you’re talking with your team every day and making clear what takes priority and what should be back-burnered, reports will have a clear sense of what needs to be done and you’ll know who’s delivering and who’s not. And don’t assume chopping a few heads will be received poorly by the high-performers. Says Tulgan: "Usually what managers find is that employees say, 'What took you so long?'" Low performers take up money that might otherwise be available for a raise, and they undermine teamwork. Good workers recognize this.
Some managers try to keep too much information too close to their chest. Then when the axe comes down, folks are shocked and angered—and you come off as mean and callous. By explaining the facts up front, you’ll save a lot of heartache. For example, "If we delay this project, none of us will see our annual bonus." Employees will respond to your transparency and know what lays ahead.
Hold Yourself Responsible
Take ownership for bad news. If the news is a result of your own poor business decisions, take the blame, says Tulgan. "I’m gonna take a bullet, but we’re all gonna suffer." If the news is based on a decision from above, don’t just blame it on the guys at corporate. "That undermines everybody’s confidence in the organization and the chain of command. Because that’s your source of authority, it weakens you." Explain the business decisions that were made, and how it will affect the company.
[Image: Flickr user Tambako The Jaguar]