When Your Boss Is Too Nice

Managers who are afraid to break eggs can't make omelettes — or good places to work, says Jared Sandberg of the Wall Street Journal's Cubicle Culture column.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

When it comes to bosses, there's Bill Lumbergh from "The Office" - from "Office Space" excuse me.

(Soundbite of movie, "Office Space")

Mr. GARY COLE (Actor): (As Bill Lumbergh) Mil, we're going to need to go ahead and move you downstairs into storage B.

Mr. STEPHEN ROOT (Actor): (As Milton Waddams) No.

Mr. COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) We, ah…

MARTIN: David Brent from the British office.

(Soundbite of series, "The Office")

Mr. RICKY GERVAIS (Actor): (As David Brent) People say I'm the best boss. They go, you know, we've never worked in a place like this for it's such a laugh, you get the best out us and I go c'est la Vie. That's true actually.

MARTIN: Of course the devil in Prada herself.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Devil Wears Prada")

Ms. MERYL STREEP (Actress): (As Miranda Priestly) I don't understand why it's so difficult to confirm an appointment.

Ms. ANNE HATHAWAY (Actress): (As Andrea Sachs) I know, I'm sorry Miranda. I actually did confirm…

Ms. STREEP: (As Miranda Priestly) The details of your incompetence do not interest me. Tell Simone I'm not going to approve that girl that she sent me for the Brazilian layout. I asked for clean, athletic, smiling; she sent me dirty, tired and paunchy.

MARTIN: Yup, plenty of bad bosses on TV and in the movies and in actual offices. If you go online there's no shortage or articles about bullying bosses from vast company there's a blog called Jerk Bosses: To Coach or to Can? At cartoonstock.com, a site devoted to making fun of the sob in the corner office. In Washington state implemented laws where employers could face fine of up to $625,000 and possible jail terms if a manager is deemed an occupational hazard because of his or her behavior. But what about if your boss is nice? I mean really, really nice. Maybe too nice? That can prove to be as bigger problem, as Jared Sandberg from The Wall Street Journal found out when he set out to write about this in his recent Cubicle Culture column. "Avoiding Conflicts, The Too-Nice Boss Makes Matters Worse," is the title.

Friend of the BPP, Jared Sandberg is on the line.

Hi, Jared.

Mr. JARED SANDBERG (Columnist, The Wall Street Journal): Good morning, folks.

STEWART: So when we - let's just sort of define what nice means. Nice isn't necessarily like, hey, you broke your foot, don't come in tomorrow. Give me the characteristics you're talking about when you did - are defining someone as being too nice.

Mr. SANDBERG: We're talking about someone who really doesn't like to have a pleasant conversation, which includes a lot of people. I think the notion of the Devil-Wears-Prada boss is really something that we're seeing less and less of these days. Instead, a big problem is working for a boss who really doesn't want to tell an underperforming colleague that they're underperforming. And there are all kinds of reasons. I mean some of them are legal. No one wants to get sued. No employer wants to get sued. And some of them just don't want to sit down and say, look, you know, you're not pulling your own weight.

STEWART: Now, are these people who want to be simply be well-liked, to be your buddy in the office, or are these the people who just can't deal with confrontation?

Mr. SANDBERG: I think they're both. I mean, they can range from people who just don't really want to be in a position where they are, you know, crushing someone's spirit. But I think there are also some people who are obviously avoiding their own jobs as managers because once you sort of tell the person that they're underperforming, you then as a manager you own that problem and you have to help resolve it. And a lot of people don't want to get involved in resolving these personality problems that they think is better suited for a psychologist to handle.

STEWART: Now, is niceness the equivalent of weakness in your opinion?

Mr. SANDBERG: No, I don't think it is. And I don't really - you know, we shouldn't have a problem with someone being nice. But that's not the issue. I think the issue when a boss uses their niceness as an excuse not to confront a problem. So they'll tell themselves, you know, I just don't want to hurt someone's feelings and things like that. The real problem is that they don't want to, you know, sit there. You can be nice and still confront people with issues that are not only, you know, making them underperform but making everyone else in the department miserable because they think that there is unfair treatment of someone other there.

STEWART: That's an interesting part. You talked to a couple of different, I think, a professor at Stanford Business School and the idea that nice bosses can create narratives within the office where workers turn on other workers.

MARTIN: Oh, sounds bad.

STEWART: Why would that happen?

Mr. SANDBERG: Well, you know, you see someone and you know a colleague of yours who's underperforming. You feel like you're working much harder and yet getting a reward at the same way that they are. And so there's a lot of bitterness among colleagues that, you know, the boss is treating someone with kid gloves. And, you know, that's just one of the big problems. It seems unfair. It seems to obliterate the sense of meritocracy.

But another problem is this is all a recipe for blind-sighting. You know, some employees who thinks they're doing really well but is never told otherwise. And, you know, if you're sitting in an annual review and it's the first time you've ever heard that, oh, you know, maybe you're not pulling your own weight then that is not, I would argue, is not your fault. That's just another manager failure. It should come as no surprise to anybody.

STEWART: There's a gentleman named Bruce Tulgan who wrote a book called "It's Okay to be the Boss." And in it he wrote nine out of 10 workplace problems that are not caused by God are caused by the lack of engagement on the part of the manager. The non-engaged manager can happen sometimes because someone is simply too nice. So what do I - recourse do I have as an employee? I mean, how do I go to human resources and say, ah, my boss is too nice?

Mr. SANDBERG: Yeah. I think that's a really good problem. Look, if there is another colleague who is underperforming and it is directly affecting, you know, you and you have to pick up the extra slack, I do think in that situation you have a, you know, a good opportunity to talk to that other employee.

But I think the real problem is, you know, you have a bigger beef with your manager. I think, you know, you have to advocate confrontation in this case. I mean, I think you have to be able to go to your manager and very gingerly say - and, you know, one of the big issues in this whole thing is being very specific. You know, you have to say how this has impacted you and what specifically it has made you do and what specifically is the issue. And that it makes you feel like this is an unfair system. And you have to give your boss an opportunity first to tell you what he or she plans to do about it.

I, you know, I think that's a step that you would take before going to HR. I don't think you'd go to HR directly without giving your boss an opportunity to address these issues directly with you first.

STEWART: Some good advice from Jared Sandberg who writes the Cubicle Culture column for The Wall Street Journal.

Talk to you later, Jared.

Mr. SANDBERG: My pleasure. Thanks.

MARTIN: Thanks, Jared.

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