Your nice boss may be killing your career
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.