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Oct 18, 2023
6 min

Navigating Leadership: Why Being Kind Beats Being Nice

As October unfolds, I find myself looking back on the whirlwind of activity that September brought, including performance reviews, feedback sessions, and conversations about the road ahead. Last month's frenetic pace has given me much to reflect upon, particularly the nature of leadership within our fast-growing SaaS company. As the Head of Human Resources, one theme resonated with me this season — how leaders often mistake "niceness" for "kindness."

The Allure of Ruinous Empathy

Kim Scott's book Radical Candor is my moral compass when facing leadership decisions, especially concerning feedback. One concept that has hit home recently is "ruinous empathy," where leaders are overly nice and avoid uncomfortable but necessary feedback. But here's the catch: This approach is ruinous because it deprives your team of the opportunity to truly develop and improve.

On the flip side, the "kind" approach is one of Radical Candor. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but it gives team members the constructive feedback they need for genuine growth. 

While niceness avoids ruffling feathers, kindness is brave enough to speak the truth, valuing long-term growth over short-term comfort.

Leadership Isn't a Popularity Contest

Let's be honest. The role of a leader isn't to be liked; it's to steer the team in the right direction. When leaders prioritize being liked over giving accurate and helpful feedback, we're setting ourselves—and our teams—up for failure. At best, this sugarcoating leaves employees in a state of confusion. At worst, it can lead to severe misunderstandings, and an employee doesn't even realize they're underperforming until it's too late.

The desire to be liked drives leaders to be too "nice," often at the expense of true leadership. In the quest for personal approval, leaders avoid tough conversations, dilute constructive feedback, and sidestepping necessary decisions. Paradoxically, we undermine our credibility when we cater to being liked. Being "kind" pushes beyond the need for personal approval. It takes courage to provide the direct feedback necessary to guide the team in the right direction.

Nice leadership pacifies; kind leadership empowers.

It's Lonely at the Top

Leadership often feels lonely.

When you're responsible for making tough decisions that impact your team's livelihoods and the company's trajectory, the weight of those responsibilities can feel isolating. Loneliness is a mantle that we have to accept. It's part of doing what's right to ensure the organization's collective success. Awareness of this inherent aspect allows a leader's conscious choices to be anchored in meaningful action rather than ephemeral likability.

Sometimes, we must make difficult yet necessary decisions. Accepting your role as a leader allows you to cut through the haze of superficial "niceness" and avoid the traps of wanting to be everyone's friend. "Nice" leaders avoid conflict by retreating into a shell of indecisiveness. 

Kind leaders can make difficult decisions that serve the greater good.

We can't shy away from uncomfortable conversations.

Leaders Must Choose Radical Candor

Being candid is often mistaken for being harsh, but in reality, it's a form of kindness that allows for authentic growth and development. When leaders offer straightforward, honest feedback, they give team members the tools to improve and excel. This approach cuts through the ambiguity that can cloud performance evaluations or leave employees guessing about their standing within the organization. 

"Nice" feedback is often diluted, sparing the individual's feelings at the expense of valuable growth opportunities. "Kind" feedback is clear and specific, so it helps team members understand precisely where they stand and what they need to improve upon. 

In the "nice" world, you're liked but not necessarily respected. In the "kind" world, you earn the respect and trust of your team because they know you mean what you say. A candid conversation might be tough in the moment, but it paves the way for clear expectations and a mutual understanding of goals and priorities. 

In the long run, choosing candor over sugarcoating is a kindness that serves not just the individual but the entire team and organization as well.

The Art of Kind Candor

Feedback is a make-or-break leadership skill, no doubt about it. Especially here, where our company's growth is relentless and rewarding. 

So, how do you deliver kind, clear, honest feedback?

First off, start on a high note. Approach the conversation with genuine care for the individual on the receiving end and highlight their strengths or accomplishments. That way, it's clear that this isn't a personal attack but a road map for mutual growth. 

Second, be specific in your feedback, focusing on actions or behaviors rather than attacking the person's character. 

Third, take a straightforward yet collaborative approach to candid conversations. Focus on being constructive. Be very clear and direct, but also encourage dialogue. Invite the team member to share their perspective. This fosters an environment of mutual respect and empowers individuals to take the necessary steps for improvement.

Kind candor is crucial in creating a culture that equips people to excel.

Resilience, Gratitude, and Empathy

Earlier this year, I spoke about the three competencies of effective leadership: resilience, gratitude, and empathy. While these traits still stand, I'd like to shift the emphasis on some crucial distinctions between kindness and niceness. Nice leaders display these traits in a way that avoids conflict, but kind leaders integrate them to drive growth. Niceness aims to please; kindness aims to build.

As the year progresses, it's crucial to self-reflect. Are you leaning into being "nice," skirting around hard truths to the detriment of your team? Or are you committed to being "kind," which sometimes involves uncomfortable but essential conversations? 

When we as leaders prioritize being liked by being too nice, we risk compromising the quality of feedback we give, ultimately doing a disservice to our team and organization.

The role of a leader is less about avoiding discomfort and more about facilitating growth. Leadership is not about making easy choices; it's about making the right ones—for your team, your organization, and you as a leader.

Join Our Team

Are you looking to be part of an innovative and purpose-driven company? We have exciting opportunities for individuals who are intentional about shaping the Broadband experience for the world around them.

Here are the current openings you can apply for and become a part of a company with an impeccable culture. 

Senior Vice President, Talent and Culture

Parul Kapoor is the senior vice president, talent and culture at Calix. Parul leads the global talent and culture team and the operations supporting Calix’s 800+ employees around the world. Parul previously held leadership roles at Cadence Design Systems and Google. Parul has a B.S. in Biology from the University of Delhi and an MBA from the Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resource Development in Pune.

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