A path lit by words

The manager’s dilemma: Is it good to be “nice?”

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Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. on February 24, 2016.

An article in the Harvard Business Review pushed my buttons. The title was How nice bosses get ahead.

Nice is a wimpy word, an imprecise word. It pussyfoots. It equivocates. Nice is vanilla, neither a strong compliment nor a biting insult. We default to it when a person or situation is uninspiring or dull. “Nice” is how our teenage friends described a boy or girl who wasn’t smart or attractive, or a party that was just okay. It is the word we apply to a vacation that wasn’t memorable, a performance that was unremarkable, or a potential residence we didn’t connect with. “Nice” is often followed by “but.”

Citing research conducted by Wharton’s Adam Grant and others, the article portrays nice bosses as warm, kind, fair, and agreeable. It concludes that “creating a leadership model of trust and mutual cooperation might help create a culture that is happier, in which employees help each other, and (as a consequence) become more productive in the long run.”

That’s nice, but…

Gallup, in The State of the American Manager, is much more precise:

“Great managers possess a rare combination of five talents. They motivate their employees, assert themselves to overcome obstacles, create a culture of accountability, build trusting relationships and make informed, unbiased decisions for the good of their team and company.”

Most people, I believe, would choose a manager like that over a nice one. Regrettably, however, Gallup alleges that 82 percent of managers are “miscast.” Only one in ten people have the right combination of talents to be a manager. Another two in ten people have elements of managerial talent and can be developed into good managers.

That is sobering news, given that Gallup also tells us that at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units is attributable to managers. Every year low engagement—around 30 percent for the past sixteen years—costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity. That means poor managers are costing us more than $300 billion annually. We had better be concerned about more than how nice they are.

A better quality to demand of our managers would be “empathy,” the psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others.” In a classic Harvard Business Review article, “What Makes a Leader?” Dr. Daniel Goleman identified empathy as one of the five essential qualities of emotional intelligence.

“… empathy means thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings—along with other factors—in the process of making intelligent decisions… Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways.”


Goleman and others have tied emotionally intelligent decisions to high individual performance and measurable business outcomes, from reducing union grievances, to preventing turnover, to improving productivity and increasing sales.

Helping their organizations strengthen the managerial ranks is an ideal opportunity for Human Resources to add strategic value. Activities where HR should take the lead include:

  • Analyzing engagement survey reports to determine which managers turn in the best results. Dig deeper into the data and supplement it with interviews and focus groups, to understand exactly what managers with highly engaged subordinates do differently. Use the information to develop a manager profile that works in your company and actively recruit for critical attributes, internally and externally.
  • Assessing current managers against your manager profile. Determine who is a natural fit and who can be coached to become a high performer. Have honest discussions with managers, using specific examples that illustrate their performance, and work with them to determine if they are in the right job. Provide appropriate career options for those who don’t make the grade and those who opt out.


  • Taking a hard look at leadership development and manager training programs. Goleman says that people can learn empathy and the other elements of emotional intelligence, but not in the same way as hard skills, that is, not through logic or by reading a book. Soft skills take “motivation, extended practice, and feedback.” External programs or specialized consultants can help you upgrade or expand your current programs to work more effectively.


  • Leveraging good managers to help train the others. Enhance your training efforts by “seeding” the audience with good managers. Not only will all managers hear the same message, but the good managers will function as role models and advocates. Hearing from and observing peers who are already successful is a powerful way to help those who are less proficient recognize their shortcomings.


  • Augmenting the annual engagement survey with engagement efforts and metrics that are tracked on a continuing basis and can be communicated regularly. Show managers how they compare to their counterparts in other units. Encourage them to develop short-term and long-term plans to increase engagement, and include progress against plans as measures of their performance. Again, expect successful managers to share their knowledge and help others build strategies and plans.


  • Rewarding managers for the actions they take to increase engagement with both their subordinates and their peers. Build specific engagement results—not just overall scores—into managers’ performance goals and weight them significantly relative to other performance areas. Make it clear that engagement counts.


Finally, don’t assume that managers are engagement experts. Make sure they fully understand the factors of engagement and the significance of their influence on each of them. Among those defined by most experts are:

Culture and Values

  • A work environment based on honesty, authenticity, and integrity
  • An attitude that employees are valuable and deserve to be treated fairly
  • Trusting and supportive relationships with co-workers who are competent, collaborative, and friendly
  • Open communication, in good times and bad, so that employees feel involved and informed

Career and Professional Development

  • A clear line of sight to how the individual contributes to the organization’s mission, vision, and goals
  • Challenging and meaningful work that takes full advantage of employee strengths and skills
  • Access to the information, tools, and conditions employees need to be successful in their jobs
  • Opportunities for learning, growth, and development, as well as confidence in the fairness of advancement and promotion decisions

Performance and Rewards

  • Rewards that are perceived by employees as fair relative to the market and to others in the organization for the work they do
  • Clear performance expectations and a sense that rewards are performance based
  • Ongoing, real-time feedback that is two-way
  • Praise, recognition, and appreciation for their ideas and opinions

When all is said and done, technical skills and cognitive abilities have become threshold skills on the path to becoming a manager. Successful organizations insist on social awareness, the ability to sense people’s emotions, anticipate their reactions, interpret body language, and listen carefully for the message behind the words. Such managers are more effective at leading and motivating a wide variety of employees, a capability that leads to increased engagement, retention, productivity, and profits. When faced with that choice, merely “nice” managers will not make the cut.

Author: Jean Bardo

I'm a freelance Human Resources consultant and blogger, a published short story writer, and an aspiring author of fiction I call "literary mysteries."

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