The pitfalls of being too nice at work

Over politeness in the workplace could be harming your business

Being an effective business leader can involve walking a tightrope between being too polite and too pushy. Nobody wants to be nasty – we’re all aware how bad this can be for business and morale – but being too polite can be just as bad.

Research from online expenses management provider Webexpenses found that more than three-quarters of UK business managers believe excessive politeness negatively impacts their business. Furthermore, two-thirds have said they find it difficult to be assertive. Everyday issues that managers typically avoid tackling out of politeness include poor time-keeping and unjustified absence from work; theft or fraudulent expense claims; bad behaviour; and poor performance.

So what does this mean for UK business leaders? Often there is a tendency to act in a way that is too passive out of fear of upsetting anyone. People are regularly promoted for their ability to be polite and nice, but this may become a trap. It means when an individual finds themselves having to manage others they can often struggle to make difficult decisions, or feel inhibited and guilty about giving orders. At worst they might fail to challenge others on unacceptable behaviours that negatively impact the business.

We’ve seen the impact that workers politely staying quiet can have. The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was in part due to people not wanting to speak out internally against risky business behaviour. Such behaviour was allowed to go unchecked and ultimately resulted in whole banks collapsing, sending economic shockwaves around the world.

The relationship between assertiveness and performance follows an inverted U. As assertiveness increases so does perceived success. However, there is a peak point – more assertive people are seen as less likeable and this can lead colleagues to be less co-operative, which creates more conflict.

The optimum middle point will fall in different places depending on your culture. In Britain we have a stronger preference to be consulted, and to explore different options. That doesn’t mean UK leaders should damp down their assertiveness in every situation. The challenge for UK managers is finding when it’s right to challenge others and when it’s best to give way. Most situations call for a combination of both: being clear and firm while remaining polite.

A difficulty in getting the right balance of politeness or pushiness is that we're all individuals. Whatever our natural default style, we all need to learn how to flex assertive behaviours in the right way and at the right time to find that optimum middle ground.

For business leaders and managers looking to flex more assertive behaviours here are my top tips:

  • Act quickly before a problem escalates and let others see you dealing with issues regularly and immediately.
  • Be clear, ensure your expectations are unambiguous. As leader it is your responsibility to communicate the company’s goals and values.
  • Have shared rules and apply them to all. This avoids conflict and dissatisfaction in the team.
  • If the problem persists then restate the message. People may not readily change. Don’t use this as an excuse to give up.
  • Celebrate success but also be prepared to take action if others cannot or will not do what is required for the business.

Being assertive isn’t an open invitation for leaders to become mini-dictators. Going too far and acting in a way that is aggressive or rude can be equally counter-productive. Be sure to balance the above tips with a polite human touch:

  • Manage your own emotions to avoid expressing unhelpful anger and blame. You may need to wait until initial frustrations subside.
  • Ask questions to understand others’ feelings and point of view.
  • Accommodate the needs of colleagues where this does not undermine your goal, to develop trust and loyalty.
  • Collaborate and ask team members to propose a solution. This will empower them and share ownership of the problem.
  • Offer tools/training to show that however tough your demands you’re on the same side and will provide support.

Laura Haycock is a business psychologist at psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola