When Your Boss Is Too Nice
Yes, it can be pleasant to work for someone who is kind and thoughtful but there’s a difference between bosses who are pleasant to work for and those who avoid conflict at all costs. Managers in the latter category don’t give tough feedback, shy away from going to bat for their teams, and give in too easily to demands. If this sounds like your boss, your career may be at risk.
What the Experts Say“I’m 100% in favor of kindness and compassion in leadership. What I don’t believe in is a boss who in the name of niceness, doesn’t do what he’s supposed to,” says Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Working for a manager who is conflict-averse can have deleterious effects on your performance and your career. Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, says that many of these bosses aren’t aware of the effect they’re having on their direct reports. “My experience with leaders like this is that they don’t know they’re behaving that way,” she says. Here’s how to mitigate the potential damage of a boss who is too nice.
Be empatheticHaving a boss who doesn’t stand up for you is frustrating — but don’t blame him. “New bosses are particularly prone to this. Have a little sympathy that he’s trying to gain credibility with his peers and boss,” says Hill. If you see the situation from his perspective (rather than painting him as the enemy), you’ll be better able to help him.
Directly address the issueStart by talking to your boss. Make clear what you need — and be as concrete as possible. If you’re not getting the necessary resources for a project, you might say: “This is what we’re supposed to get done and unless we have more people dedicated to the project, we won’t be able to do it. Is there a way we can work on getting more resources?” Or if she’s being too hands off and not giving you enough input, you might say, “I need more insight from you along the way and I’m not sure how to get it.” You can also try to make it easier for her to give feedback. “You may want to describe actual events and how you handled them and then ask for advice on how you could’ve handled it differently,” says Hill.
Make the costs clear“People change but not unless they’re dissatisfied with their own behavior,” says Hill. For this reason, it’s important that you help your boss understand the costs of his behavior. Step into his shoes and try to understand what he really cares about. “That way you can show that what he wants to accomplish is at risk,” says Hill. If you can make the downsides of his conflict-avoidant behavior evident, he may be incented to change. For example, you might explain that by not directly addressing underperformance on your team, he’s alienating the high performers. Point to direct evidence, such as a team member’s disengagement.
Take matters into your own handsMcKeown suggests that instead of waiting for your boss to give you guidance and input, do it yourself. “Write a contract with your boss,” McKeown says. “Put down in writing what results you’re trying to achieve, the parameters you’re working within, and how you will be held accountable.” Then ask your boss to react to it and sign it. “At least you’ll have something concrete you can run towards,” he says. For some people, this seems pushy, but McKeown’s research shows it’s effective. “All the managers I’ve talked to say they’d welcome that level of initiative,” he says.
Tap your networkIn some cases, you may need to go above your boss and use your network to get feedback or resources. But don’t sneak around your boss if possible. Try to include him in those discussions. For example, you might discover that there is some slack in another department and tell your boss about it so he can ask that team leader for additional resources.
With a conflict-avoidant manager, it’s doubly important that you have strong relationships elsewhere in the organization, Hill says: “Build your network so it includes people a few levels up and so you have a legitimate reason to talk to them.” McKeown agrees on the importance of these connections: “Find someone who is not your boss’s boss but sits just outside your team who can be your spokesperson.”
Consider leaving if you canIt’s easy to assume that having a conflict-averse manager isn’t really a problem. But there are serious long-term effects. These kinds of bosses may not help you advance your career because they’re afraid to ruffle feathers and get you promoted. Or they may damage your credibility if they are seen as ineffective and others assume those on their teams are too. “People let it go on for a long time,” McKeown says. He suggests that you transfer to another department or leave the company if your boss is unable to change. “I would always prefer to work with someone who has some edge and is willing to challenge me to be better,” he says. If that doesn’t describe your boss, it may be time to find a new one.
Principles to Remember
- Talk directly with your boss about what you need — and be as concrete as possible
- Build your network so that you can rely on other people for help and resources
- Make the costs of her behavior very clear — that’s the only way she’ll change
- Hesitate to take matters into your own hands
- Think of your boss as the enemy — he may not be aware of his behavior
- Let it go on for too long — if possible consider transferring to another department or finding a new job
Case study #1: Get what you needFor just under a year, Matthew Hart* worked for a boss who tried desperately to be nice (we’ll call him Bryan). Bryan managed a team of 52 people at the credit card processing company where they worked — and avoided conflict at all costs. “He couldn’t step up when it came to making hard decisions,” Matthew explains. “He wouldn’t make resource requests he promised to and gave in to unreasonable complaints.”
Matthew tried to talk with Bryan about the problem. “I was the voice for the team and explained how his behavior was affecting morale and causing turnover,” he says. He gave Bryan specific examples of the impact he was having on the team. “Everything that Bryan said in response was in line with what you’d read in a book — but that’s not how he acted,” Matthew says.
After failing in his direct attempts, Matthew resorted to going around Bryan: “I ended up getting what I wanted from those above him.” After Matthew got a promotion, he asked Bryan for more resources. When those requests didn’t come through, he talked with Bryan’s boss, the company’s CIO. “I asked him about the status of my requests and realized that he didn’t know about them,” he says. While Matthew didn’t like the idea of going around Bryan, he felt it was necessary: “I had direct reports who were counting on me to get them what they needed.”
It soon became obvious how damaging Bryan’s behavior was. “We lost four senior engineers and two managers in a three-month timeframe.” Eventually, Bryan was let go and Matthew and one of his colleagues were promoted to jointly fill Bryan’s role. “Most of the people that left have come back and our culture has dramatically changed for the better,” he says.
Case study #2: Don’t stay too longFor close to a decade, Carlon Cayenne worked at a petrochemical facility in the Caribbean. During that time he had numerous bosses but his last, a manager named Fred*, was one of the toughest. “He had a ‘country club’ management style. He was very sociable, always courteous, and approachable,” he says. But Fred was also indecisive and often looked to the team to make key decisions by consensus. He gave in to almost all instructions from the level above him, and rarely, if ever, pushed back. Carlon sensed that he did this in order to maintain a friendly and conflict-free work environment.
But if the team couldn’t agree on how to move forward on a particular project, they were stuck. And it wasn’t just their performance that was affected. Their relationships suffered, too. “The team lost credibility in the organization and some people struggled to move their careers forward,” Carlon says. Senior leaders scrutinized him and his peers because they worked for Fred and he felt his professional development opportunities were limited.
Because Fred was very approachable, Carlon felt comfortable raising these issues with him directly. “I would present the potential consequences or outcomes of decisions or situations as they arose and try to influence his choices,” he says. And when that didn’t work, he stepped in. “In some cases, I took charge of the situation and reassured him by assuming responsibility for the outcomes,” Carlon says.
He worked for Fred for three years until he decided to leave the company to take another job. Several of his colleagues have also since left — but Fred is still there.
*not their real names