Your Nice Boss May Be Killing Your Career

Harvard Business Review

Chris spent years working for a supportive, encouraging manager at a major technology company headquartered in Silicon Valley. In fact, his boss raved about him. His manager gave him top ratings in his performance evaluations, space to do his work, and had never been controlling. He was, according to Chris, terribly, unswervingly nice. Picture perfect boss, right? Wrong.

His manager had been in the company for 20 years. He had learned how to survive in the bureaucracy: don't make too many waves, don't cause problems. He played the political game well enough to still be there but not well enough to strengthen his reputation. He had slowly lost his political clout. As a result, his team had been winnowed away to a fraction of the size it used to be.

His own reputation bled over onto the members of his team. For Chris it had a powerful effect on his career: he had been passed up three times for a promotion he was repeatedly promised. It was not what his boss was doing that caused the problem. It was what his boss was not doing.

Over a twelve-month period I have gathered data from 1,000 managers about their experiences at over 100 companies including Apple, Cisco, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Novel, and Symantec. I wanted to understand the conditions under which people did the very best work of their careers. What I expected to find were examples of over managing, controlling, tyrannical managers. About half of the participants confirmed this assumption. The other half surprised me: what they described were managers who were nice but weak.

I once spent two days running a strategy session with just such an executive. He spoke with a soft, quiet voice. He never interrupted anyone when they were speaking. When he walked into the meeting he had a "nice" word for everyone. Every time the team became "positively frustrated" and ready to make the change necessary to get to the next level he would stand up and say sweetly, "Oh, I just wanted to remind you all of how far we have come." And after a few more sentences the spark of aspiration was gone from the room. He unintentionally signaled the status quo was plenty good enough. There was no need to try harder or change how things were going. He reminded me of what Jim Hacker (the fictional politician in the English cult classic "Yes, Minister") said to his bureaucratic colleague, "You really are a wet blanket, Humphrey, you just go around stirring up apathy."

Another executive I worked with had an almost voodoo ability to neutralize people's desire to take action. With an almost Jedi-like wave of the hand he seemed to say, "These are not the things you care about changing." People would be kicking and cussing before he walked into the room but a little later they would wonder what they had been frustrated about. That is a useful party trick to be sure but the result was career limiting for each member of his team. Everyone on the team was branded as average and in a reorganization the entire team were "let go."

These nice but somewhat absentee managers can continue to survive, unchecked for decades. At least a controlling boss who yells all the time gets noticed: they create acute pain and people complain. In contrast, the pain these nice "Neutralizers" produce is chronic. The pain is inflicted slowly, drip by drip. On any given day an employee can say, "Well, it's not so bad." They are, after all, nice. But the cumulative effect on your career can be dramatic.

This is a problem hidden in plain sight. The issue has been unintentionally camouflaged by leadership thinkers (I am guilty) who may have overemphasized overmanagement and underemphasized undermanagement. The majority of the leadership literature over the past 25 years has done this. But what happens if an undermanager reads an article, book or attends training of this kind? It may encourage them to continue in their hands-off, low control, absentee approach. They may say, "Yes, I don't like to smother my people or control them." They may speak about empowerment and enablement. All the while they allow their people's career prospect to decline slowly.

In the case of Chris, just naming the problem was liberating. Once he could see how toxic the situation was he took action. He met with his mentors. He visited with his connections. Within a few weeks he took a lateral move to get away from his "nice" manager. After another move a year later he is in a terrific position in a better company with far better prospects than he had before. Just developing a heightened awareness of the issue can be helpful. After all, we cannot solve a problem we do not see.

Some details have been changed to protect privacy.

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