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When 'Nice' Bosses Fail

IT is a service business, where nice guys often finish first. But you'd better be effective too, because scorched-earth leaders are just waiting to pounce.

My column last week, Why Bully IT Bosses Lose The Game, hit a nerve with readers, judging by the emails and comments that followed. Some readers were complimentary, but others took me to task for extolling the virtues of "nice bosses." Their feedback amounted to: "What good is being nice if you're completely ineffective?"

Well, I couldn't agree more.

As I said to one of the readers, Accountability 101 is a different topic altogether. Unfortunately, it's one place where well-meaning IT bosses fail, and then scorched-earth managers point out that failing as proof positive that being civil and decent to employees is a horrible idea. Riiiight.

Of course, running a country club environment where nobody is accountable for work output is a sure path to failure. But that's very different from deciding to ignore the prodigious research showing that kindness, consideration, empathy, and optimism can create competitive advantage, particularly at service organizations. I referenced some of that academic research in my last column, but another strong example is the findings of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, as detailed in "The Leadership Challenge."

Here's my challenge to all of us: Let's distinguish between nice bosses and those who are ineffective. It makes me crazy when someone hears that a boss is nice, then assumes that he or she must be a pushover and have an IQ below 50.

So-called nice bosses who can't have difficult conversations with employees aren't nice at all, because in the long run they'll create hard times for their organizations. These people eventually get fired and leave a legacy that makes those in charge overreact and want to clean house: "Now it's time to bring in a hatchet man!"

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To be fair, in some cases these terrible leaders are simply conflict-averse. They've never been taught how to create constructive conflict. They don't know how to have difficult conversations.

[ Are you ready for The New IT Rulebook: Not For The Faint Of Heart. ]

There are resources out there to help you have those difficult conversations without being a jerk. One is Nine Common Mistakes, based on the Harvard Business Review book of the same name. Failure to Communicate is a good list of what NOT to do. The one item from that list that resonates with me most is No. 4, lashing out or shutting down. Achieving balance between doing nothing and freaking out is tough, but it's incredibly important.

One of the balancing techniques I've used over the years is what I call the responsibility technique. When you have that difficult conversation with an employee, you just remind him or her that YOU are ultimately responsible for work output and outcomes for your division or department. If you weren't holding the individual accountable, you wouldn't be doing YOUR job.

You're not, however, required to brutalize your employees! I have always wondered why some leaders include humiliation in their accountability equation. Who do you think is going to do the right thing when your back is turned: the employee who's treated with dignity and respect during a coaching session or the employee who's denigrated?

As I said in a TEDx talk I gave, we can't treat IT pros like coal miners who don't have other options. We need to treasure them. We need to feed, water, and sometimes prune, but when we do prune, we need to do so without rancor or disrespect, if for no other reason than to preserve an environment that keeps other employees around.

There will be those who point to the Foxconns of the world, companies that treat employees badly but manage to succeed financially. Admittedly, my expertise is in the service sector, not in manufacturing. But for every Foxconn, there are 100 Patagonias (of Let My People Go Surfing fame), with a track record of employee-friendly profitability and success.

The bottom line is that you can't build a world-class IT organization absent great bosses. And you can't be a great boss without being "nice" in some way. But you will absolutely fail--and fail your employees--if accountability isn't front and center.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at [email protected] or at @_jfeldman.

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