Your nice boss may be killing your ca­reer

Finweek English Edition - - MANAGEMENT - GREG MCKE­OWN

Chris spent years work­ing for a sup­port­ive, en­cour­ag­ing man­ager at a ma­jor tech­nol­ogy com­pany. In fact, his boss raved about Chris; he gave him top rat­ings in his per­for­mance eval­u­a­tions, al­lowed him to have space to do his work and didn’t try to con­trol him. He was, ac­cord­ing to Chris, ter­ri­bly, unswerv­ingly nice. Sounds like the pic­ture-per­fect boss, right? Wrong.

Chris’s man­ager had been at the com­pany for 20 years. He had learnt how to sur­vive in the bu­reau­cracy by not mak­ing too many waves and not caus­ing prob­lems. He played the po­lit­i­cal game well enough to still be work­ing there, but not well enough to strengthen his rep­u­ta­tion within the com­pany. Over time, he lost his po­lit­i­cal clout. As a re­sult, his team was whit­tled down to a frac­tion of its pre­vi­ous size. The re­main­ing team mem­bers were also af­fected by Chris’ man­ager’s rep­u­ta­tion, for in­stance when Chris was passed over three times for a pro­mo­tion he had been re­peat­edly promised.

Over a 12-month pe­riod I have gath­ered data from 1 000 sub­jects, de­scrib­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences at more than 100 com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Ap­ple, Cisco, HP, IBM, In­tel, Mi­crosoft, Novel and Sy­man­tec. I wanted to un­der­stand what con­di­tions en­able peo­ple to do the very best work of their ca­reers. I ex­pected to hear a lot about con­trol­ling, tyran­ni­cal man­agers. About half of the par­tic­i­pants con­firmed this as­sump­tion. The other half sur­prised me: they de­scribed man­agers who were nice but also weak.

I once spent two days run­ning a strat­egy ses­sion with just such an ex­ec­u­tive. He spoke in a soft, quiet voice. He never in­ter­rupted any­one. When he walked into a meet­ing he had some­thing ‘nice’ to say to ev­ery­one. And ev­ery time the team reached a boil­ing point and was ready to make the change nec­es­sary to get to the next level, he would stand up and sweetly say: “Oh, I just wanted to re­mind you all of how far we have come.” He would say a few more sen­tences in a sim­i­lar vein, and the spark of as­pi­ra­tion would dis­ap­pear from the room. He un­in­ten­tion­ally sig­nalled that the sta­tus quo was good enough, that there was no need for his team to try harder or do things dif­fer­ently.

An­other ex­ec­u­tive I worked with had an al­most voodoo abil­ity to neu­tralise peo­ple’s de­sire to take ac­tion. He could walk into a room full of peo­ple kick­ing and curs­ing in frus­tra­tion, and by the time he left they would won­der why they had been so ex­as­per­ated in the first place. His neu­tral­is­ing skill is a use­ful party trick, but the re­sult was that each mem­ber of his team was limited in his or her ca­reer. Ev­ery­one on the team was branded as aver­age, and dur­ing a re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of the com­pany the en­tire team was let go.

Th­ese nice but some­what ab­sen­tee man­agers can go on to sur­vive unchecked for decades. While a con­trol­ling boss who yells all the time may be dif­fi­cult to work with, at least she gets no­ticed: she cre­ates acute pain in the ranks that causes peo­ple to com­plain. In con­trast, the pain the nice man­agers pro­duce is chronic: it is in­flicted slowly, drip by drip. As a re­sult, on any given day, an em­ployee can say to him­self, “Well, it’s not so bad.” The man­ager is, af­ter all, nice. But the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect on that em­ployee’s ca­reer can be dra­matic.

This is a prob­lem hid­den in plain sight. The is­sue has been un­in­ten­tion­ally cam­ou­flaged by lead­er­ship thinkers, such as my­self, who may have overem­pha­sised the dangers of con­trol­ling man­age­ment styles and un­der­em­pha­sised the risks of lais­sez-faire man­age­ment. Most lead­er­ship l it­er­a­ture pro­duced over the past 25 years has done this. But what hap­pens if some­one who is an in­ac­tive man­ager reads an ar­ti­cle or a book or at­tends train­ing of this kind? It may en­cour­age him to con­tinue with his hands-off, low-con­trol, ab­sen­tee ap­proach. He may say: “Yes, I don’t like to smother my peo­ple or con­trol them.” He may even speak about em­pow­er­ing and en­abling his em­ploy­ees by giv­ing them a strong sense of in­de­pen­dence. Mean­while, his em­ploy­ees’ ca­reer prospects will slowly de­cline.

For Chris, just nam­ing the prob­lem was so lib­er­at­ing that he quickly acted to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion. He met with his men­tors and other con­nec­tions. Within a few weeks, he made a lat­eral move to es­cape from his ‘nice’ man­ager. Af­ter an­other move a year later, he is now in a ter­rific po­si­tion in a bet­ter com­pany with far greater prospects than he had be­fore. Just de­vel­op­ing a height­ened aware­ness of the is­sue can be help­ful. Af­ter all, we can’t solve a prob­lem we don’t see.

Greg McKe­own is the CEO of THIS Inc., a lead­er­ship and strat­egy de­sign agency head­quar­tered in Sil­i­con Val­ley. He was re­cently named a Young Global Leader by the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum.

© 2013 Har­vard Busi­ness School Pub­lish­ing Corp. © The New York Times 2013.

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