Help—my boss is too nice

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So I had an evaluation the other day. My supervising editor, Bill, came in and we had a nice chat. I outlined my goals and described the obstacles I foresaw. For his part, he told me how he thought I could overcome those obstacles, and informed me of qualities management values. Overall I thought it was a useful exercise that left me more hopeful about my prospects at this workplace.

My boss is nice. But not too nice. And I’m not just saying that because I blog on a company site that he or his colleagues might bother to read. Believe me, I’ve had bosses of all textures: noodley, prickly, electric, tough as hide. Out of that batch, the noodle is by far the worst.

Jared Sandberg of the Wall Street Journal tackles this topic this week in an article titled, “Avoiding Conflicts, The Too-Nice Boss Makes Matters Worse.” He writes:

The bad manager tends to conjure images of the blood-vessel-bursting screamer looking for a handle to fly off. But these types are increasingly rare. Far more common, and more insidious, are the managers who won’t say a critical word to the staffers who need to hear it. In avoiding an unpleasant conversation, they allow something worse to ferment in the delay. They achieve kindness in the short term but heartlessness in the long run, dooming the problem employee to nonimprovement. You can’t fix what you can’t say is broken.

The thing is, I think Sandberg himself is being too kind by attributing managers’ behavior to kindness. When bosses don’t tell employees what they need to hear, I think it’s more to do with

a) lack of a spine;
b) desire to put off unpleasant tasks;
c) prioritizing other business goals over staff management;
d) passing the buck (if I don’t deal with my crappy employee, someone else surely will).

And that’s none too nice.

As the WSJ continues,

Bosses who want to avoid any discomfort, “use generalities so people really don’t know what they’re talking about,” says Laura Collins, an HR consultant. Instead, they tend toward one-size-fits-all comments: “pay a little more attention to detail” and “improve the way you communicate” and “develop better organization skills.”

Here’s how that manifests:

Those were the ones Ryan Broderick, formerly an assistant account executive in advertising, heard from a boss. The substanceless nature of his feedback stuck him with one of the worst performance-related torments: Being left to your own imagination. “Hearing nothing is worse than hearing something,” he said.

Before new management stepped in, that vacuum of information pervaded my own workplace. I attribute it in large part to c), or prioritizing the publication of a weekly news magazine over thorough management of its people. It’s not a priority I don’t understand; after all, if our product fails, there will be nothing and no one to manage, period. But good products don’t just happen. The people who produce it must be engaged and well used. What’s the point of having a staff if we’re not performing?

Shortly before he left, my old boss told me of mistakes I’d made early on in my employment. My boss had remembered those mistakes, and years later they still colored his opinion of me. I had always had the sense he didn’t think the moon of me, and now that he was about to go, I knew why. I was aghast. Why hadn’t he said anything? Didn’t he think I wanted to improve? Why keep me on payroll if he thought I stank? What good did that serve anyone?

I’m not saying it’s easy to be boss. The power, the respect, the boffo paychecks come with the p&l accountability, the hiring and firing, the hour-to-hour decision-making. But help us help you. We want to perform; we want our product to succeed. Tell us we suck at writing captions, that our cubicles smell like cheese, that it annoys the hell out of everyone when we dominate story meetings with dull-as-dirt pitches. We need to know.