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Can a leader be “too nice”?

April 8, 2015 Blog 1 min read

A couple of weeks ago, Sandy Pierce, Chairman and CEO of FirstMerit MI, and I were honored as “business leaders of the year” by the Harvard Business School Club of Michigan—a very humbling experience. We were both asked to talk a bit about leadership and how we developed into our current roles. Sandy—who is an incredible leader, both within FirstMerit and the community—talked about starting out in the banking industry and how, time and again, she was discouraged from proceeding because she was just “too nice.” Those words ignited a determination within her to prove people wrong—not to change who she was or how she approached leadership, but to prove to her detractors that nice people could succeed in business.

I, too, have faced concerns of being “too nice” from time to time. Most recently, it occurred during the assessment process prior to becoming managing partner at Plante Moran. My test results revealed my inherent optimism and tendency to believe in people to the nth degree. “You’re so nice,” cautioned a fellow partner. “My one concern is whether you’ll be able to give constructive feedback the way the position requires.”

I’ve always been a Theory Y guy. I believe that, given the chance to do the right thing, staff will come through the vast majority of the time. I believe that the satisfaction of doing a good job is strong motivation and that, given the proper conditions, most people will seek out and accept responsibility in an effort to truly make a difference.* Because I feel this way, it’s natural for me to give the kind of constructive feedback my job demands. It’s what you do if you truly care about people and want them to succeed. In fact, failing to do so would be the opposite of being “nice.” As we’ve always said at Plante Moran, “Candor is kindness.”

Who else has faced this strange criticism? Is being nice a detriment in business? Or is it an advantage, resulting in a dedicated workforce? I know what I think, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

*This is in contrast to Theory X, which believes people are inherently lazy and unhappy at work and that it’s important to micromanage staff to get the results you need. These theories of motivation were developed by Douglas McGregror at the MIT Sloan School of Management in the 1960s.

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