Should You Be Nice or Tough?

Organizational leadership Respect


Key Point: To be a great leader you have to be BOTH tough and nice. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman address this in their Harvard Business Review article, Nice or Tough: Which Approach Engages Employees Most? The summary below highlights the results of their research:

“Essentially, our analysis suggests, that neither approach (nice or tough) is sufficient in itself. Rather, both are needed to make real headway in increasing employee engagement. In fact, fully 68 percent of the employees working for leaders they rated as both effective enhancers and drivers scored in the top 10 percent on overall satisfaction and engagement with the organization.

Clearly, we were asking the wrong question, when we set out to determine which approach was best. Leaders need to think in terms of “and” not “or.” Leaders with highly engaged employees know how to demand a great deal from employees, but are also seen as considerate, trusting, collaborative, and great developers of people.

In our view, the lesson then is that those of you who consider yourself to be drivers should not be afraid to be the “nice guy.” And all of you aspiring nice guys should not view that as incompatible with setting demanding goals. The two approaches are like the oars of a boat. Both need to be used with equal force to maximize the engagement of direct reports”

People who have worked for me know that I ask them to stuff “20 pounds of sugar into a 10 pound bag”. I ask a lot and in almost all cases, I have found that people step up to the high bar, make great choices and do their best work. I also like to give them lots of autonomy and recognition. I am not suggesting I’m a superb example of what Zenger and Folkman’s research reinforces, but I deeply believe being tough AND nice go together.

Character Moves:

  1. Respect the people who work for and/or beside you enough to demand excellence. Expect them to do their best work ever or to get out of the way. Be clear about what you want. If they can’t deliver, care enough about them to help them move on. You and they are worth it.
  2. Being tough helps people understand where they can improve (see my last blog). However, I have found that most people like to know what they are doing well at too. Reinforce their strengths. Frankly, it is easier to do more that we are good at than to change our shortcomings. Be a cheerleader by pointing out specific behavior and results worthy of applauding! Be a total coach.
  3. Be TOUGH and NICE. Be what Zenger and Folkman describe as a leader skilled enough to row with both of these oars. Cool analogy. Row with one oar and you will go nowhere. Neither will your team. Row with both.

Nice AND tough in the Triangle,