Bosses shouldn't be afraid of being tougher with staff

We are being too nice when staff get treated more like beneficiaries, says HR consultant Gill Taylor

Gill Taylor

Are we too nice to staff? This is a subject that third sector HR professionals discuss with each other, but not necessarily with senior managers.

One head of HR told me that her director refused to let her start capability proceedings against a chronic poor performer because it would upset the team and "everybody likes Jolene". Another example was the office manager who negotiated her flexible working arrangements to work from home four days a week.

Managers are too nice when they go overboard to meet staff preferences, when flexible work patterns suit staff but inconvenience clients, when managers will not say "boo" to a sulky employee, when poor performance is not tackled up front (even when everybody knows about it) and when staff are not held accountable.

Don't get me wrong - staff should have fair working terms and conditions, be treated with respect and get compassionate treatment when things go wrong in their lives. But we are being too nice when staff get treated more like beneficiaries.

Best of motives

Directors are often nice for the best of motives. They want to trust people and see the best in them. They run an organisation that aims to be better than the world outside and cares for its beneficiaries. They want these principles reflected in how they treat their staff. Everybody likes to be liked and it is much easier to say yes than no.

We work in an era when the virtues of a collaborative working environment are trumpeted widely and there is guilt associated with being a tough boss.

But there is a big difference between engaging with employees and pandering to them. Managers are often afraid to challenge issues and worry that they will spoil the team atmosphere if they're not nice, but this could not be further from the truth. Ten to one, Jolene's colleagues are actually desperate for her to be tackled, because she lets them down.

Staff arrive with a range of motives, attitudes, learned behaviours and needs. It is a mistake to assume that they are automatically going to work well. When we are nice to staff and don't get the response we expect, we might be up against people whose motivation is not the same as our own.

Getting the balance wrong

Managers can get the balance catastrophically wrong when dealing with needy or poorly performing staff. At one level this is deceitful: things that matter are not being mentioned, and it messes with the psychological contract that governs the unspoken trade-off - the give and get of the workplace. However nice you are to some staff, they will always want more and won't actually modify their behaviour or expectations.

Treating staff too nicely isn't necessarily good for them either. It doesn't help them reflect on their own skills or strengths and weaknesses. The best directors realise that staff are not clients. They put the needs of the organisation and its beneficiaries first. They are fair, equitable and flexible where possible, with a good sense of give and take. But they are not scared to have difficult and honest conversations.

Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant

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