The Nice Trap

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“I just don’t feel joy in this job anymore.”

I was sitting in a windowless conference room with my new client, Derek. It felt a bit stifling, like the heat was on too high, and Derek seemed equally confined by the office chair he’d chosen to sit in. There were two nice armchairs across the room, and I suggested we move. He agreed politely but without much enthusiasm. He had soft features and a gentle manner, and I immediately felt we’d get along.

When we sat again, I waited for him to continue. I’d been told this software engineer for a major retailer had a lot of talent and that his team really loved him. Yet he was not happy at all.

“I just want to get better results,” he said. “But I can’t seem to motivate my team.”

We talked a bit about strengths and weaknesses until he told me that what others found a strength was what he considered a weakness.

“They always say I’m so nice.”

I really appreciate kindness, but I also understand why leaders don’t want to be thought of as too nice. They’re right to feel that way, and the leaders I work with are always relieved to learn that the solution is not to become a pushy egomaniac.

It’s not news that people who are liked a lot sometimes struggle with being respected. That doesn’t mean being a nice man or woman is a drawback. Yes, the jerks in the business world do sometimes get ahead, but in the end such people aren’t truly respected, and egomania does not tend to command real loyalty over the long-term. Empathy, generosity, and connecting with others are part of emotional intelligence, traits that the best companies now seek in their leaders.

The trick is to maintain these more subtle and “soft” leadership traits while still standing up for yourself and projecting confidence in a way that is authentic to who you are. A leader must be strong enough to take a stand—even while staying connected with others. They must hold others accountable for their actions, and also hold themselves accountable for the agreements they have made. Another role leader must take on—one that doesn’t always feel ‘nice’—is to make sure that good work gets noticed. Do you regularly share your team’s successes with your boss, even if it feels a little egocentric? Do you champion your department in meetings?

Derek and I worked together to think up ways he could take a stand in meetings, planned out steps he could take to get more attention for his team for their successes, and checked in regularly to make sure he was holding himself and others to agreements.

A few months in, he told me that morale was up in the team.

“I’m even starting to feel joy in my job again.”

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