Monday, 27 February 2012

In Times of Leadership

‘To be or not to be: Should leaders be nasty or nice?

In the consulting I do for businesses, I find that leaders are increasingly wary of being nasty. They go on courses to develop their emotional intelligence. They subject themselves to feedback from their peers. They read books on how to motivate their staff. They’re getting a lot nicer. But is that a good thing?

The debate has a noble antecedent in Machiavelli, of course. He argued it was better to be feared than loved, but since then the forces of democracy, modernity and celebrity have reversed the equation. A case point would be Vladimir Putin, who has to struggle against his inner Stalin, and overcompensates by showing off his torso in the hope of adoration. Modern leaders love to be loved.

In a business context, however, this can be unhelpful. A business exists to generate value in the form of a product of service. Generating it is what we call work. The fundamental role of the leader therefore is to secure the greatest value for the least work, a mixture of effectiveness with efficiency. That leader might not need to be nasty as such, but he or she does need to be a pretty steely technocrat.

But the niceness of modern leaders is not an end in itself. It’s a technique aimed at making the workforce more efficient-the nicer I am, the harder they’ll work. After all, if niceness isn’t aimed at that, it’s kind of irrelevant. The same goes for nastiness too; if it doesn’t help the business, it’s just bullying.’

(Smith, R. R. 2005. To be or not to be: Should leaders be nasty or nice? The Sunday Times, 27 February. (Kindle Edition))


  1. Haha, I also struggle against my inner Stalin!

    However I think it depends on the context of the situation as well as the person. Some workers, through upbringing and other various external forces may respond better to people shouting orders. Whereas others will desintegrate into a puddle of self pity as soon as someone is mean to them.

    The context as well matters. For example, if they are working in a dangerous environment, then perhaps being overtly nasty to get what you want is a good thing. So there is no chance of the workers doing something wrong through sheer laziness and then hurt themselves or cause an accident.

    Of course this last example would not work if speaking about a safe business office environment. So then again, being nasty or nice depends on where you are and who you are doing it to.

  2. I have experienced ‘wary’ leaders, leaders who are ‘increasingly wary of being nasty’. In an ideal world leaders should be able to lead with confidence, self assurance and they should not have to consider ‘nasty or nice’. They have a vision; they inspire, motivate and lead their organisation towards fulfilling that vision. In reality however leaders, particularly in small organisations dance delicately between ‘nasty or nice’, equally paranoid about the potential consequences of both.

    In terms of being ‘nasty’, the threat of employment tribunals is very ‘real’ for employers in SMEs. It is so easy for an employee to take legal action against their employer and therefore can make the decision of sacking or redundancy terrifying for leaders. It is also so easy for employees to obtain sick notes for ‘stress at work’, whether this be genuine or not and the phone call at 8.30 in the morning to phone in sick again, after being off only 2 weeks ago, costs businesses money and time and increases the grey hair count of leaders. Invariably therefore, leaders are ‘nice’ as opposed to ‘nasty’, because of these repercussions, to the point where the employees are the ones calling the shots.

    I think employment law is a stumbling block for many small organisations and their leaders. It is a minefield and SMEs do not have the funding for HR departments. Leaders are often stumbling blindly through, often with no way out other than a hefty pay cheque, regardless of the outcome. In my experience of working in SMEs, the employees appear to be more employment law savvy than their employers, they hold all the cards and they play well with a union rep beside them to boot! In my opinion the thinking that ‘the nicer i am, the harder they’ll work’ is naive in this 21st Century society where individuals on the whole appear to be looking out solely for number 1.

    I believe the solution is a shake up. It is my understanding that US organisations and employers have less of an employment law minefield to contend with. In comparison to the UK if a US employee is repeatedly underperforming or offending it is a simple ‘You’re Fired’ whereas UK employers have to affectively undertake a risk assessment. I think we need to find a happy medium, a balance between ensuring organisations are able to hire and fire their staff as they deem fit, enabling them to succeed and grow whilst ensuring that employees are not discriminated against or unfairly dismissed. Sounds like a headache to me but in light of the current economic climate surely there is no better time for both employers and employees alike to pull together and for the government to step in and aid future growth and prosperity.

  3. From Maria:

    'Leaders should give their employees a clear definition of what they want the company to go. The nicer they are, the more likely their employees will want to follow their directions. But, from my point of view, leaders must be respected by their teams, they must show that they know what are they doing and that they are the most capable person to do their job, so they need to be serious and profesional.'