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Finding the Right Balance Between “Tough” and “Nice” Leadership Styles

by | May 11, 2021

When it comes to tough conversations where a lot is on the line, is it better to be nice or to be tough?

Leadership development experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman studied over 30,000 leaders and 150,000 of their employees at hundreds of companies around the world, searching for the answer. Their findings reveal a key to successfully navigating difficult conversations.

Zenger and Folkman discovered two common leadership styles — what they call “drivers” and “enhancers.”

Drivers establish high standards of excellence, setting goals that make people stretch, and keeping people focused on meeting those goals. To put it simply, their leadership style is to be task-driven. If you absolutely have to get something done, you want a driver at the helm.

In contrast, the leadership style of enhancers is to be more relationship-driven. They’re in tune with the needs of others. They’re great role models and coaches. They develop people and maintain trust.

When Zenger and Folkman asked which approach was more likely to increase engagement, most respondents said that the enhancer leadership style was more effective. In fact, most leaders told them that being a “nice guy” is the way to increase employee commitment.

But the data tells a different story. Less than 9 percent of employees working for leaders judged as good drivers but poor enhancers rated themselves in the top 10 percent in terms of engagement. Even fewer employees, only 6.7 percent, rated themselves in the top 10 percent when they worked for leaders judged to be good enhancers but poor drivers.

In other words, being either primarily nice or primarily tough isn’t highly effective. So what is? Zenger and Folkman concluded both leadership styles are needed to increase employee engagement. “In fact,” they report, “fully 68 percent of the employees working for leaders they rated as both effective enhancers and drivers scored in the top 10 per cent on overall satisfaction and engagement with the organisation.”

Zenger and Folkman concluded, “Clearly, we were asking the wrong question, when we set out to determine which approach was best. Leaders need to think in terms of ‘and’ not ‘or.’ Leaders with highly engaged employees know how to demand a great deal from employees, but are also seen as considerate, trusting, collaborative and great developers of people… The two approaches are like the oars of a boat. Both need to be used with equal force to maximize the engagement of direct reports.”i

Mindful Compassion: The Bridge Between Nice and Tough Leadership Styles

The bridge between these two leadership styles is what I call mindful compassion. This type of mindfulness enables us to be tough without being mean, nice without being lax. It helps drivers to see that people are more important than tasks, and it helps enhancers to see that truly seeing and loving people includes holding them accountable with direct honesty.

Asiri Senaratne learned from experience the importance of both tough and nice leadership styles. Asiri was used to being a tough leader in a high-performance, results-driven corporate finance job. But when that company was liquidated following the GFC, he took a job managing a call centre for a non-profit organisation. The call centre was bleeding money fast, and he was charged with turning it around quickly.

“I went in all guns blazing,” he said. “I thought the old rule book was going to work: be the leader, stand up and say, ‘Today’s the day things change. Today’s the day we start to perform.’ Which is what worked for me in corporate finance.” Change proved to be much more difficult than he’d expected, however. With an average tenure of 15 years, all of the staff were highly resistant to change — and especially to his approach. Halfway through Asiri’s first “tough guy” speech, his entire leadership team walked out on him.

Asiri kept trying the tough leadership style for a couple months, but he made no headway. After reconnecting with his mindfulness practice, he realised he was operating from fear and anger. There was no compassion or kindness.

He changed his leadership style to being more of a servant–leader. “For the first time in my career,” he said, “I was connecting with my team as people instead of as machines paid to deliver on tasks. I was working to improve their capability while also transforming the operation. I was being true to myself while being true to my values as a leader.”

What helped him bridge the gap was a moment of insight. “I realised that my meditation practice was not integrated with my life,” he said. “I was okay with being this guy who slammed his fist on the table and said, ‘These numbers aren’t good enough, we need to change,’ and then going home and meditating. I had been led to believe that there was no place for compassion in leadership, because that was a weakness, or if not weakness, at least an ineffective way of getting things done.”

Compassion, however, was the missing link in his leadership style that was preventing him from connecting with his team members. He began practising a more compassionate style of meditation and made a concerted effort to integrate that into his leadership style. He became a much more effective leader which allowed him to help turn the call centre around.

Asiri’s lesson deepened even further when he was next recruited to a large bank, where he learned that his compassion practice had become fixated and inflexible. “I came into the position as a warm and fuzzy, loving kindness, compassionate, understanding person. I had a very assertive, performance-driven general manager who thought I was great for a while, but he told me we had a job to do.”

Again, Asiri reflected mindfully and realised that, although his initial lesson was valuable, he still wasn’t being flexible in his leadership style — a dead giveaway that he had lost his mindfulness. “I was colouring my reality with a sort of fixed idea about compassion. It had actually become sort of a crutch.”

He turned to a practice of developing a more clear-eyed, objective kind of awareness. It wasn’t long before he started having the tough conversations that were needed in his leadership style. “But with my new awareness, it came from a place of love,” he said. “I was able to address situations immediately, before they got out of hand, and say that we needed to work together because the standards weren’t being met.”

The balance was solidified when he was given the three most challenging performers to work with. “With those individuals, soft acceptance wasn’t what was needed,” he said. “Change was required. There was a directness and a bare clarity to my leadership style that had to be brought to the table very quickly. Mindfulness helped me separate my action from the emotion that I was associating with it, to look at the emotion really objectively. I would feel compassion for people and my heart would open up. But I was also aware enough to lay out my expectations. With every act of authenticity people’s respect for me grew. When I saw them slipping into bad behaviours I was able to call them on it, but in such a way that they knew we were partners working together for their future.”

Compassion is a Strength, Not a Weakness

Western culture teaches us to view compassion as soft and, frankly, weak and passive. We think that somehow being compassionate makes us spineless wimps, allowing others to take advantage of us, and never taking a stand. But nothing could be further from the truth. Compassion actually enables tough conversations because it allows us to conduct them without anger — to hold people accountable with purity of intent.

Compassion in action can actually look very direct and tough. Allowing people to break agreements and fail in their performance without holding them accountable isn’t compassion at all — it’s fear and avoidance.

But when we hold people accountable compassionately, we do so with a complete absence of anger, which enables greater wisdom. We are not blaming or shaming — we are doing what is best for the individual and the organisation with love and honesty. We’re seeing them with an understanding heart while saying what needs to be said, because dishonesty leads to broken trust.

Jack Kornfield, perhaps the most well-known mindfulness teacher in the West, puts it this way: “Compassion is not foolish. It doesn’t just go along with what others want so they don’t feel bad. There is a yes in compassion, and there is also a no, said with the same courage of heart. No to abuse, no to violence, both personal and worldwide. The no is said not out of hate but out of unwavering care. It is the powerful no of leaving a destructive family, the agonizing no of allowing an addict to experience the consequences of his acts.”

Mindfulness expert Patrick Kearney adds this additional insight: “Compassion is the intention and action to end the suffering of people. You might think a person is suffering and your wisdom tells you that what this person needs is a dose of tough honesty that would snap them out of their suffering. So you apply the medicine.”

The next time you are faced with a tough conversation remember striking the right balance between “tough” and “nice” leadership styles is the way to ensure kind accountability. Compassion and clear insight through mindfulness are the path to that balance of leadership styles.

Zenger, Jack, & Folkman, Joseph (2013). ‘Nice or tough: Which approach engages employees most?’, Harvard Business Review, September 11.

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