You Don’t Have To Be Nice To Be Respected
Ted was a major player in the C-suite of a Fortune 500 company when I got the call from HR to “fix” him. Apparently, he’d rubbed one too many people the wrong way. He was “more than abrasive,” they told me; he was downright rude, controlling, disrespectful and exhaustively demanding. He had a revolving door of assistants and colleagues and a growing reputation as a bully. But they claimed that he was also “indispensable” and wanted me to try to turn him around. Without making any promises, I agreed to meet with him.
In the beginning, true to form, Ted was dismissive, insisting that everyone else was the problem: They were all “wussies” who were too sensitive and too politically correct. “You all just want me to be nice,” he said with disdain. “I don’t have time to be nice.”
Like so many leaders, Ted ascribed to the commonly held belief that the only alternative to being a commanding and controlling, my-way-or-the-highway boss is to be sickly sweet nice. This seems to stem from the fear of being perceived by staff and colleagues as a pushover and that if you’re nice, you won’t be respected.
But the reality is that conflating niceness and respect is a mistake. In today’s diverse work environments, being respectful with your team is a choice you can make that has positive, measurable and valuable impacts on collaboration, teamwork and productivity. Of course, being nice to them is certainly an option, but they won’t necessarily consider you respectful for it. In fact, some people have trouble trusting a boss who is nice, thinking, “They’re being so nice; they must want me to do something I don’t want to do.” But the converse is almost never true: It’s unlikely that employees will not trust a leader who is being genuinely respectful. In short, being nice and being respectful do not automatically go hand in hand. It’s entirely possible to be very direct and even blunt and still be respectful in ways that few would ever label as nice.
So, how does a respectful leader behave? Growing up, many of us heard the same admonition: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule is guidance that can be found in almost every culture and every religion. At first glance, this feels “right” as a leadership style. But upon closer examination, the Golden Rule is not a great way to lead at all, primarily because not everyone wants to be treated the same. For example, if you’re an extrovert, you might be completely comfortable being asked by your charismatic boss to meet unexpectedly with a prospective client, but the same request might send an introvert running.
The Golden Rule isn’t a positive leadership practice because how people want to be treated is personal and as varied as the individuals on your team. Treating everyone the way you want to be treated just doesn’t work across the board; a few people may respond well to it, but others, not so much.
There’s another maxim, developed by Dr. Tony Alessandra and Michael O’Connor, called the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” Leading in this way means finding out how others prefer to be treated and respectfully honoring those preferences. It doesn’t mean sacrificing one’s standards or being too nice. It simply means adapting your own leadership style to best meet the needs of those who work with you. If you have a team member who responds well to “please” and “thank you,” then you should say those things to them, sincerely and consistently. If you have another team member who couldn’t care less about common courtesies but needs consistent and genuine praise from you in order to perform at their best, then doesn’t it make sense to give them what they need?
Research I’ve done tells us that the leader who practices this adaptive, flexible and respectful approach is much more likely to experience consistent, positive results, performance, collaboration and loyalty. And, as a bonus, these leaders are, for the most part, genuinely respected in return. Respect is usually reciprocated with respect; the same cannot always be said for being nice.
As for my client Ted, once he understood the clear distinction between being nice and being respectful, and once he understood the business case for the Platinum Rule and the negative impact of his own disrespectful behavior on his team, his colleagues and, most importantly, his reputation, it didn’t take long for him to take on a new, more adaptive and flexible leadership style. Now, no one ever called him nice after that, but they did use the phrase “He’s tough, but respectful” on a regular basis. I’ll take that as a win.
Sure, you can be as nice as you want. But that won’t be nearly as effective as being respectful. Don’t conflate the two.