During my years of leadership consulting I have met far too many leaders who are acting either from a fear-based niceness or with a heartless “professional” aggression. 

They have not mastered mindful compassion, nor are they enabling others to act in a way that is truly empowering and uplifting. 

Fear-based niceness often leads to an amiable but chaotic, underperforming, even political team or organisation. Professional aggression often leads to burnout, alienation, and disengagement. In both cases, the result is plummeting employee engagement.

When I’ve pushed these leaders to look deeper into why they are engaging in these self-defeating behaviours, I’ve discovered predictable patterns behind each style. 

The nice leaders are so fearful of disapproval or disconnection that they end up tolerating things they shouldn’t. 

The aggressive leaders, on the other hand, impose stretch goal after stretch goal without much support, coaching, or compassion. 

Interestingly, in both cases, the simplest starting point for breaking the cycle and boosting employee engagement is setting clear agreements with people. 

Please note the use of the word “agreement” rather than “expectation.” People want to know what’s expected of them. But rather than imposing edicts, a higher level is to create mutual agreements, both with direct reports and with colleagues. 

Take time to be awake and consciously upfront with people, not fearful or avoidant. We are not born to be slaves and when our boss takes the time to be mindful with expectations and agreements, it is deeply honouring. 

Be clear on what you would like from the agreement. With clarity upfront, when it comes time for reward, recognition or fierce compassion, the relationship can be handled skillfully based on the mutual agreement. This eliminates the confusion of unspoken expectations and the hidden resentments they can create. 

Agreements, as opposed to edicts and expectations, allow the nice leader to create genuine performance accountability without alienating people. They also allow the aggressive leader to add more compassion and support to the performance standards. 

Mutual agreements lend the courage of objective clarity to leader–team member relationships. Leaders don’t have to push or dominate; they can simply point to the agreement. The nice leaders can more easily be fiercely compassionate, while the tough leaders can avoid the aggression and shaming and be more rational and compassionate. 

In his book Leadership and the One Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard coined the term seagull manager, referring to managers who “fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everyone, then fly out.” 

The seagull management style can become a problem for both nice and tough leaders. The nice guy becomes a seagull because he panics when things fall apart. He dumps on people, then regrets it and goes back to being nice without accountability or true leadership. 

The tough guy swings back and forth from confronting and demanding to putting his head down and working hard himself. It’s the same problem that has the same effect on employee engagement, just a different style. 

I had a seagull manager phase when I was uncomfortable with clarifying expectations because it felt too “leader-like.” I just wanted people to “get it without having to spell out every detail. 

But what happens in this situation is that when people don’t perform to our unset expectations, we panic and then swing the pendulum from avoidance clear across the spectrum to micro-managing. We swing back and forth between these two extremes, both of which are equally damaging. 

In mindfulness terms, the avoidance style of management is aversion, while micro-managing is fear-based clinging. In either case, we create suffering for ourselves and others and decrease employee engagement. And the solution for both is the same: creating mutual agreements and boundaries from the perspective of care and connection. 

For the avoidant seagull manager, setting clear boundaries makes people feel clear, empowered and motivated. For the micro-manager, having a mutual agreement in place allows you to let go and trust people more. The result is greater employee engagement .

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