Welcome to Refinery29’s career column Advice From A Nice Girl. Every month, readers can ask Fran Hauser, bona fide boss and author of the book The Myth Of The Nice Girl, about their hardest career quandaries, from managing an overly emotional boss to overcoming their biggest work fear. But this advice column comes with a twist — the reader has to take Fran’s advice and report back.
This month, we hear from a 38-year-old digital editor in New York City who worries that maybe her team is taking advantage of her niceness.
Question: I have this new fear that my niceness is getting in the way of my team doing their best work. At best, it feels like they take advantage of me, which is annoying (i.e. rolling into work late, sneaking out early). At worst, I worry that they aren't really hearing my feedback and not improving. When I think back on the times in my early career when I really excelled, I often had a really mean boss. There's nothing like the fear of being yelled at to motivate people to do good work, right? I know that's not true, but I'm really concerned that they think I'm a pushover and it's not good for anyone. Help!
Fran's Response: Your instincts are right: Yelling as a tool for motivation is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution to creating a collaborative, high-performing team. Research shows that a positive work environment leads to greater productivity, lower turnover, and even better health outcomes for employees.
That said, it is possible to take niceness too far and allow ourselves to be a pushover or people pleaser. That’s when your kindness stops being an asset and becomes a liability. I know this all too well — empathy is my Achilles’ heel. I have a natural tendency to worry so much about how I’m affecting others that I sometimes let that impulse get in my way. It’s been a lifelong struggle for me to find that perfect balance between being nice and being strong at work.
But I’ve learned that it’s possible to be accommodating and assertive; authoritative and likeable at the same time. First, don’t beat yourself over this. Cut yourself some slack, because most women I talk to struggle with the same exact push and pull as a manager. The fact that you’re reaching out for help is a solid first step.
Next, you have to show your team that you are a kind yet strong leader. Here are four tactics to try:
Don’t let bad behaviour slide. If someone is rolling into work late repeatedly, you can say, "Just so we are clear, don’t mistake my kindness for permission to underperform at your job. You need to be on time." This shows that you’re not afraid to step up and own your niceness instead of apologizing for it, while being direct with feedback. Stress the fact that this is a trusting relationship. If someone needs to leave early or has to arrive late, you trust that they will still get their work done. But you also trust them to communicate schedule challenges with you. Use the opportunity to find out if something else is going on causing the need for a shift in schedule (empathy + authority).
Focus on the company’s goals and performance. I’ve found that the most motivated teams are ones who are working toward a goal that they believe in — or at least understand why it’s important. Take this opportunity to have a full team meeting and discuss your collective goals and expectations and the WHY behind them. You could say, "I don’t manage based on fear, I manage based on expectations and here is what I expect." Welcome any questions or input.
Start with a mentorship mentality. If there’s an employee who is not meeting expectations, discuss together what she needs to better perform in her role; or what additional professional development or learning you can offer. By asserting your role as a leader who genuinely cares about the success of each of your team members — and not one that makes excuses for or ignores poor performance — you will have proven you have both empathy and high expectations.
Revisit how you’re delivering feedback. If you think that someone is not hearing you — or not listening — schedule one-on-one time with that employee to discuss his or her performance. It is possible to give feedback directly and kindly (see the advice I shared here). The basic rules: Be considerate but candid. And be willing to listen. Put it back on the employee: Ask what he thinks of his performance. Then, at the end of the conversation, discuss next steps and ask him or her to email you in the next couple of days with an action plan. This will allow you to ascertain if your feedback is being processed and retained.
Through your success, confidence, and all-around sense of authenticity, you can prove to your team that being nice and effective are not mutually exclusive. And that there is no doormat outside your office.