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Too nice for your own good? Why fair but firm will make you a better leader

When it comes to good leadership traits, kindness is an essential virtue. An approachable and empathetic employer promotes employee well-being, happiness, and harmony in the workplace.

A study into workplace empathy revealed that 96% of employees believe empathy is the key to retaining a loyal workforce. Other findings show that highly engaged teams show 21% more profitability.

But there’s a subtle difference between being kind and being too nice. In some cases, always being the ‘good guy’ could backfire, causing harm to you, your employees, and your organisation.

In this article, we look at how being too nice could do more harm than good, and why fair but firm is a better approach to effective leadership.

Being too nice can do more harm than good

We all want to be popular and likeable – it’s a natural human desire. But do we sometimes try too hard to ‘keep everyone happy’? According to American psychologist Ryan M. Niemiec, being overly kind and passive can be perceived as a weakness rather than a strength. ‘Overuse’ of kindness can lead to ‘compassion-fatigue, intrusiveness, and being overly focused on others’.

While showing empathy as a leader can earn you respect, being too nice can do the opposite. If you come across as too passive, you may be considered a ‘pushover’. This can lead to disengagement, poor productivity, disrespect, and manipulation of your easy-going nature.

Being too nice can also come across as non-transparent and insincere. If you’re hiding your feelings to appease others, you’re being dishonest and doing your employees a disservice. Better a harsh truth than a fake smile.

While kindness and empathy are about caring for others, simply ‘being nice’ is about caring what others think about you and how you come across. Paradoxically, from this perspective, niceness could be considered a selfish and egotistical trait.

However, this does not mean you should go to the other extreme and rule with an iron rod. When it comes to effective leadership and employee wellbeing, a fear-based, authoritarian approach can be just as harmful as one that involves being too nice. 

Fear-based leadership doesn’t work either

Fear-based leadership does not make for a happy, productive work environment, simple as that.

Employees who are afraid to approach you will become reticent and withdrawn. An unhappy, even fearful employee may end up making more mistakes for fear of making a mistake. Clear communication and collaboration are vital for business success. If employees are too afraid to talk to you openly and honestly, your business will soon suffer.

Rule through fear, and your employees will quickly become disengaged and unmotivated. A fear-based environment stifles creativity and productivity. In today’s competitive working world, employee wellbeing must be a priority. Blaming, controlling and micro-managing your staff will most likely lead to stress, mental health issues, absenteeism, and a high staff turnover.

A fearsome reputation will also make it much harder to recruit top talent. Thanks to honest reviews on international recruitment sites such as Glassdoor, jobseekers are far more informed about companies when applying for a job. 

You don’t have to be best pals with everyone. In fact, close relationships in the workplace can cause tension and resentment when it comes to making tough decisions.  

But there needs to be a healthy balance. You can be assertive while also demonstrating empathy and compassion. A good leader will encourage and empower their teams. They’ll be open to feedback and offer support when it’s needed. But they will also be firm when necessary. That is the key to effective leadership.

An effective leader earns respect – they don’t demand it.

Finding the right balance – how to be an effective leader

Nobody said leadership was easy. To be an effective leader, you need to find the right balance between being kind and empathetic and being assertive when necessary.

Lead by example – the way you act should guide how your employees should act. You can be friendly and approachable while still maintaining a high level of professionalism. Employees should feel at ease with you, but they should also know and respect boundaries.

Be clear about your expectations – if an employee doesn’t meet your expectations, let them know. Be assertive but fair. Give them constructive feedback and hold them accountable when necessary.

Encourage feedback – clear communication should work both ways. Actively listen to your employees’ concerns, but don’t be afraid to directly address issues either.

Be consistent – employees don’t want to work for an unpredictable boss who bends and then enforces the rules when it suits them. Nor should they have to think, “I wonder what mood he or she is going to be in today?” A good leader will have the emotional intelligence to control their feelings while dealing with issues fairly and judiciously.

Be accountable – emotional intelligence is also about recognising when you’re wrong and owning your mistakes. Holding yourself and others accountable promotes a transparent, honest, and mutually respectful work environment.

UAE leadership style

When it comes to effective leadership, we can learn a lot from the UAE. With over 200 different nationalities living and working here, the Emirates is an eclectic melting pot of tradition, diversity and modernity.

President of the UAE, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has expressed the belief that a true leader has the courage to be open with his people and care for others as family. Given the strong values of hospitality and community embedded in the UAE, it’s no surprise that they would be present in Emirati work culture as well. Much like effective parenting, good business leaders will be clear and direct about their expectations while being supportive and protective of their staff. In the end, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed’s view is that real leadership empowers people. That is just as true whether we’re talking about an entire country or a single organisation.

So the Emirati way of working is a blend of cultural awareness, inclusion and diversity, and a respect for hierarchy. This is all underscored by an optimistic outlook. As Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said, ‘If your point of view is positive, you will see the challenges in the future as opportunities.’ This approach goes a long way – after all, it has helped transform the UAE into the dynamic global hub of innovation and excellence it is today.

Learning to be an effective leader takes time, effort and commitment. But if you can find the right balance between being too nice and too firm, you’ll earn the respect you deserve. You’ll also be rewarded with a happy, harmonious, and ultimately more productive team.

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