leadership, motivation and being ‘nice’

“He’s the kind of bloke you’d give your right arm for.” A friend of mine was talking about a high profile figure with whom he had been recently working. One of the reasons the comment struck me was that I’d heard someone else, in a completely unrelated context, describe the same person in similar ways. I wondered what it was about this leader, now a federal politician, that caused others, very significant leaders in their own right, to respond to someone in this way. In this case:

1. He stood for something. His vision for society was compelling and contagious.

2. He had integrity. In the television interviews I had seen with him I saw a person whose personal disciplines and home life reflected the values he espoused for the community.

3. He was a ‘genuinely nice bloke’.

I want to perch for a minute on the last of these. What place does being a ‘nice bloke’ have in the cut throat rough and tumble of business? I regularly come across well managed businesses that are poorly led. By that I mean that the capacity of the leaders to generate outstanding effort from their teams is incidental rather than intentional and strategic. Huh?

For example, let’s think for a minute about performance appraisals. As positive reinforcement guru Aubrey Daniels says, ‘If the purpose is to motivate employees, it does not. If the purpose is to help people improve, it does not. If the purpose is to avoid legal problems with poor performers, it does not.” Yet performance appraisals remain a cornerstone of most business calenders because of a management rather than leadership mentality. The ‘management mentality’ typically expresses itself with a certain relational toughness that dismisses the vulnerability associated with being ‘nice’. But Daniels goes on, “You can be nice and ineffective, but you cannot get discretionary effort without being liked.”

Being ‘nice’, it turns out, has got a lot to do with employee motivation, particularly when we are talking about going the extra mile. This is not about a sugar-coated, superficial, manipulative relational style. As illustrated above, this is about the a moral quality that compels people to follow.

Perhaps the natural business resistance to being ‘nice’ is related to the commonly associated practice of failing to have difficult conversations. ‘Nice’ people are soft. They don’t, won’t or can’t address tough workplace issues. Good point. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. In fact I would argue that the mix of being ‘liked’ plus the resolve to address issues through embracing tough conversations as the need arises, (mixed with a vision worth sacrificing for – the elements above) is a potent leadership cocktail.

If you are naturally nice, the trick is to become better at embracing difficult conversations. If you resist being ‘nice’ at work, try being more personable and over time and observe the difference.

The capacity to motivate people, to help them tap into the depths of their natural talent, to solicit from them the kind of effort that puts your organisation ahead of the pack should be part of leadership 101. At the end of the day, as the cliche goes, the most valuable asset in any business is the people. Being ‘nice’ might have more going for it than most business people allow themselves to believe. It is certainly not the only thing, but without the kind of relational quality that invites people to willingly go the extra mile, your business is missing a vital ingredient.

(Aubrey Daniels quoted from the Feb 2008 edition of the Australian Financial Review’s Boss Magazine.)

3 thoughts on “leadership, motivation and being ‘nice’

  1. I found your site on google blog search and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. Just added your RSS feed to my feed reader. Look forward to reading more from you.

    – Sue.

  2. I have worked for two different kinds of bosses: The first that had no idea(nor did he want to learn) how to effectively and politely communicate with the employees. And the second that showed me common courtesy and communicated to me what he needed from me. So, for which boss was I willing to stay late, work on weekends, and go the extra mile? You guessed it correctly! There is room for business and being “nice” in the boardroom. In fact, I believe it is cost effective and the work gets done.

    Lola Kern, Internal Energy Plus™ Consultant

  3. I have to agree with Lola there. You hit the nail on the head. Even in charity when we have a personal connection the desire to create action is greater, so why not with work? I go the extra mile for the managers who I see support me, bat for me and who I also respect for their ability to get the job done. It doesn’t mean they are always “nice” but I think we are all like most social animals; dogs, horses etc…we respond well to discipline, firmness and reward. Not authority. We all want the “nook” the “smile” the “approval” to “run with the pack”. Perhaps not all work environments or professions are suited to this and as such you find people gravitate to different professions which allow the interaction on a sliding scale. I would like point out the body language for me is a big clue and I respond to it. I am not necessarily waiting for the “words” to come out of my managers mouth, I respond to her facial expressions for encouragement or clues I am off the track. It is quite powerful, and even more powerful the unguarded smile.

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