A friend posted on facebook: “Are you nice?”

My answer: “I’m told I’m a nice person… but really, what I strive for is to be kind.”

This is a profound distinction that is key to being a trusted leader — and an ally or friend.  Duplicity can masquerade as “nice.”  True kindness is about supporting others to be and do their best.


When Being Kind Isn’t Nice

When I was editing my book, feedback from people I respect wasn’t always nice, but they were actually kind.  The kindness was taking a risk to help me improve.  Yes, there were times when I silently raged against the feedback… but in the end I appreciated friends who were willing to step up and tell me things I didn’t want to hear — but needed to know.

Nice Doesn’t Lead to Success

Leaders voice an opinion, even when others disagree. Being agreeable is a trait you want to have in your team, but as a leader, people must trust that they will get the real goods from you. Even when it is unpleasant and not ‘nice,’ they need to trust you to be forthright.

Although agreeableness is positively correlated with teamwork, it is negatively correlated with leadership success. The leader who is not satisfied with an employee must be strong enough to let him know clearly what he needs to do and the expectations for performance. Wanting to be seen as a popular or a nice boss is the surest way to fail.

For example, an employee underperforms.  The “nice” person may dance around and be so “careful” that the feedback becomes a blur.  The tough leader hits the truth so hard the recipient can’t hear it.  The effective leader delivers a clear message about what’s needed, when, and why — in a way that engages the employee to take action.  Truth without a bludgeon.  These leaders are willing to stand in the heat of a difficult conversation because they’re committed to their employee’s growth and to maintaining clear expectations.  

Face to Face Wins

After managing a few offices, I can tell you that one of the quickest ways to lose trust is to talk about someone behind her back. As an HR manager reporting to senior leaders, sometimes it seemed my job only involved talking about people when they weren’t present. I made sure that whatever I said about people I also said to them.  They knew what was confidential and what would be passed up the chain.

Saying something nice to people when you are in front of them and then criticizing them behind their back not only destroys trust but creates a reputation as a hypocrite. In the end, what you say about others says more about you than them.

The Bottom Line

High trust leaders deliver clear expectations.  They articulate the needs and consequences in a way that’s both direct and kind. They let people know where they stand and use language that is easy to understand. They don’t spin the truth to make it sound “nice.”

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