The Problem with the ‘Nice’ Manager

It’s nice to be seen as nice. Nice means an easier ride, less friction, no conflict, broad acceptance. But then, even niceness is not always easy, because others may not always be nice to you. And then there’s the question of what to do when the situation calls not for niceness, but directness and objectivity. More fundamentally, there’s the problem with the nice manager, which can create an innate impediment working against your success. This article looks at that problem.

Nice is Better?

First, let’s be clear that broadly speaking, it’s better to be known for being nice. Even if you may have the most formidable personality in the business, you still need to deal with people, and most people prefer to deal with nice people. Nice makes us approachable, accessible, and flexible. Nice means people can do business with us, because it suggests that we are likely to take their needs into account as well as our own. But perhaps better not to be exclusively nice, because an over eagerness to compromise can put us in the way of exploitation.

Left to its own devices however, Nice is by default negative. Nice doesn’t want ruffles and difficulties. Nice wants unchallenging and unchallenged stability. That’s fine and understandable, and it has its place.

On the other hand, this is business. You’re in charge of a workgroup. Your department is in a constant flow of change, as you strive to shift its relentlessly-arriving workload from a state of being demanded to one of being completed. Your group is a machine, constantly moving forward, in order to serve those who need it. Energy and resources are converted to productivity, and thence to results and customer benefit, all and every working day. The service factory that is our workgroup must be relentlessly positive to get through that work. The need for niceness has to be balanced with one of focused purpose. With people, nice. With work, driven and determined.

Theories X and Y

In 1957, Douglas MacGregor first presented his Theory X and Theory Y ideas of management and motivation. These were such cogent insights that they remain relevant even today. In fact, in this era of what Peter Drucker later defined as the Knowledge Worker, they are particularly relevant in IT services delivery. In  principle, ‘Theory Y’ is presumed to be dominant in IT, where managers need only to task and enable their highly skilled and knowledgeable workers, who will produce from their own eagerness. Conversely, the more pessimistic ‘Theory X’ suggests managers must measure and monitor staff to get them to work. In a monochromatic culture, Theory X apparently would be Not Nice, whereas Theory Y would be reassuringly Nice.

Ahh, if it were so simple. The Servicedesk for one cannot escape that so many hundred new user and systems enquiries arrive every week. For each of those, eventually there must be a resolution. Numerically quantifiable workload in, means at least equal numerically quantifiable results out, sometimes against the clock. So it is with all reactive response-based tasks. So it is too with planned maintenance, adherence to the change process, updating the operations log and so on. Much as we may love to see ourselves and our work as Theory Y personified, IT is nonetheless beholden to some Theory X – it is the inevitable consequence of a demand-based service provision.

So IT managers need Theory X too, and thus have a professional duty to involve staff in it. Does that mean that IT managers must be Not Nice? No, it simply means that niceness or its opposite should simply not be a consideration when it is a matter of What Must Be Done. There will be plenty of opportunity to be nice when the circumstances call for it.

Trusting IT Staff

The technical staff in the IT workgroup of which you’re in charge, are capable computing professionals. They have the skills, mindset, and understanding of their end product to be left to get on with their work in their own way. And that’s great, if it’s true. In any case, a manager who imposes rules on a group like that is at risk of being seen as authoritarian, which is the knee-jerk opposite of Nice.

Here in IT, among ranks of knowledge workers, we may find it easy to convince ourselves that management is superfluous, even invasive and confrontational. That’s one way of looking at it. Another, however, is to take into account what may be at risk if we just let our people ‘get on with it’ in their own way.

Your technicians must concentrate on their own work. It is not necessarily for them to be concerned with the bigger picture of the department’s output as a whole – that is the domain of the manager. So the bigger pictures, for example of a persistent backlog, may be missed. There may be nobody checking that all due diligence is being followed. There may be nobody willing to deal with the boring work, so outstanding tasks may be cherry-picked for their technical appeal. There may be nobody ensuring that service level targets are being met.

An absence of authority, for the sake of popularity, may be attractive, but it may also preclude completeness.

Knowing What You Want

Lewis Carroll bequeathed us the wisdom of “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Your workgroup has to have a direction, and by dint of your position as its head, that direction must come from you. The trouble is that knowing what you want can make you scary – most people are not managers, and so the content of their working day is determined by somebody else. That is a form of loss of control, and that in itself is stressful.But there is a solution to that dichotomy.

The simplest way to remove the stress of your necessary leadership is to demonstrate consistently that your direction takes your staff’s interests into account. An early lesson I picked up, that has stayed with me since, was that people follow a leader because she knows where she’s going, and wherever it is, it’s bound to be better than here. Your leadership acts in the interests of your staff. They recognise and acknowledge that, and as a consequence, you earn their respect.

Results Beget Respect

And there we have the balance to resolve the Problem of the Nice Manager. If your department produces results for the users, its customers, then your department is respected. If the head of that department produces benefits for the staff – i.e. her customers – then in the same way, she will gain their respect.

Being nice is a compromise. Sometimes that’s good, but it can limit your success, so compromise must be used carefully. Being respected is better than being nice; better for business, better for your staff and better for your own health because it increases your scope for honesty.

Broadly speaking, I’ll take being respected over being nice. It’s better for everyone.

If you are interested in learning more about approaches to the management of IT technical workgroups, I run a two-day seminar that covers it. Click here for more information on ‘How to Lead an IT 2nd (or 3rd) Line Support Group.’