Is ‘Nice’ the Way to Achieve Great Leadership?

Stacey Ashley
4 min readNov 29, 2023

Nice:

  1. pleasing; agreeable; delightful
  2. amiably pleasant

When does being nice in the workplace become unhelpful?

I have been seriously pondering this question.

In recent weeks I have had three encounters with leaders of organisations who are bemoaning the niceness of their organisational culture. Organisations where people will say, “Everyone is really nice around here”, and “It’s a nice place to work”.

This sounds good on the surface, yet what else is going on?

What is hiding behind the curtain of nice?

What is nice covering up or obfuscating?

Here are a few examples of what is happening in these organisations.

➥ Being nice means leaders choose not to offer feedback to their people because they might upset someone or hurt their feelings. So, they do not offer useful or specific feedback at all.

➥ Being nice means that everyone gets a good performance review. Everyone in the organisation ‘meets expectations’. Some may exceed expectations, even though when measured objectively they do not. Setting false expectations of performance. And expectations that salaries will also consistently increase.

➥ Being nice means that everything is always ‘going well’. Whether it is or not. There is no true sharing of the ‘state of play’ with people throughout the organisation. As long as the organisation remains operating, everything is ‘fine’.

In these situations, nice is being used as camouflage for sharing truth.

Rather than owning the state of play, the level of performance, real expectations, these are being papered over with ‘nice’, so that everyone is ‘happy’. This is cause for concern if you want a commercially viable business, with people who are performing well in their roles, growing their capability, and meeting reasonable expectations.

Imagine if, in the interest of being ‘nice’, you were to choose not to offer your people feedback, insights, and observations into their performance. What they are doing and how they are doing it, in terms of their roles and responsibilities. Without feedback, you deprive your people of the opportunity to learn, to improve, to make different choices, to grow, and make progress. They do not receive the gift of feedback from you.

Now consider the situation where you give everybody a positive performance review, regardless of their level of performance. This leads to reward for people who may not be deserving of it, and again does not let them know what they may need to do or change, to be performing at a reasonable level. It sets a false expectation and does not create the opportunity for improvement and growth, for people to reach and live in their potential. Equally, as a genuine team contributor, it can be very frustrating to see others be rewarded when they clearly are not performing.

This can lead to other consequences over time as people get promoted to roles for which they are not prepared. Their ability to perform well in these roles is compromised. What this means, particularly for leadership roles, is people are under-prepared, ill-equipped, and unable to rise easily to the level of expectation.

If you have leaders who are ill-equipped leading your business, you can imagine where that might end up. It does not bode well for a commercially successful, viable, sustainable, relevant, current organisation.

When you want to make progress, change, or transform your organisation, and you are not being honest about your current situation, performance, and people, then it is incredibly difficult to choose the right way forward. It is challenging to determine which elements to focus on in order to make the progress you desire. You do not know where your leverage is, as you do not have a clear set of valid information about where you and your organisation are right now.

On top of this, when you have not been open and honest with people about their level of capability and performance, when somebody else comes along who is open and honest with them, it can be confronting to these individuals to receive real feedback and observations. You are not creating a fair situation for your people when you could be clear with them right now.

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact
on the world around you.
What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide
what kind of difference you want to make.”

~ Jane Goodall

To create opportunity for people to thrive, we can certainly be nice, but not to the detriment of being open and honest about information that is relevant. Niceness is about sharing things that can be helpful in a way that is supportive, encouraging and creates opportunity. Yet, being nice and not being honest is unfair to your people.

As leaders, we have a clear responsibility to create supportive environments in which people can thrive. Part of that is giving them the opportunity to do just that by sharing with them relevant information about their performance, about the opportunities for them to grow, about what the future could hold for them as they develop. Not sharing this information with them does not serve them. And, in my opinion, is not very nice.

So leaders, I challenge you to be fair with your people. By all means be nice, but do not cover up the truth. Give people opportunities to make better choices, to support themselves, to learn, to grow, and each day have the opportunity to be better than the day before, while also contributing to the success of your organisation.

I’d love to know your thoughts.

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Stacey Ashley

Dr Stacey Ashley is a Leadership Visionary. She typically speaks at conferences, develops leadership strategy and programs, consults and coaches.