I am always surprised to hear that people believe that being nice and leading are mutually exclusive.
Studies show that nice people do in fact finish first. According to Jonah Lehrer, nice people are more likely to rise to power.
However in a recent Harvard Business Review article, "Is your culture too nice?" they state that conflict avoidance is a common issue in corporate cultures. The author of the article, Ron Ashkenas states "most people want to be liked and unconsciously fear that arguments, disagreements, or negative messages will create tension with people they interact with on a day-to-day basis. Compounded with the environmental pressure to respect authority and the organizational stress on teamwork, this creates a great deal of anxiety around stirring up trouble"
Perhaps this is true for some people, but what ever happened to "the truth shall set you free?" I have always been one of those people that want to say the truth straight and directly to others and in turn, I want to be told the truth directly. In fact when others avoid telling me things straight, I grow to mistrust them. But I do understand that not everyone is like me. Others may want the truth in a less-direct manner.
As a certified Birkman consultant who works with teams and individuals, the component that measures this is named "Esteem." Esteem is the way in which we relate to individuals. It measures how a person may deal with, or prefers others to deal with, approval-related topics. Conversations that create conflict are certainly approval-related. If you are a high esteem person, you are likely to respect titles and status symbols, initiate feedback by suggestion and are more careful and diplomatic in relationships. The focus is more on the person vs. the issue. A low esteem person is frank and forthright and focuses more on the issue at hand vs. the person.
I believe that Ron Ashkenas is describing a culture filled with people who have a high esteem need. And he is correct, the dominant social pattern of the Esteem score is a low esteem usual behavior, but a higher need. What this means is that most people will show up in a matter of fact, candid and non evasive fashion, but they need their environment and others around them to be respectful of their feelings and to have criticism balanced with genuine praise.
Whether you are low or high esteem, I believe that people want to be told the truth and avoiding conflict at all costs is a dangerous situation for most organizations. The bottom line is that organizations are filled with leaders and followers that are different on this component. Leaders need to be trained on how to have those hard conversations that can set someone free to do the right thing and course-correct.
Some tips that I offer:
1. If you are someone who likes to be dealt with in a matter of fact way, recognize that those around you may need a softer approach. Practice giving feedback that blends genuine praise with constructive criticism.
2. If you are someone who likes to be dealt with in a way that respects your individuality and shows respect, recognize that those around you may need a more direct, matter-of-fact approach to understand how to course-correct.
3. Let's drop the word nice altogether. Being nice is simply a form of respect and kindness. Both high and low esteem people can show respect for others in the face of conflict if they better understand their audience. My belief is that the question should not be "Is your culture too nice?" but rather "Is your culture prepared to handle conflict?"