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Being A Nice Leader Does Not Mean You Should Tolerate Jerks

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Source: Mark Murphy/ Senior Contributor/ Forbes.com

Being a nice and empathic leader is, generally speaking, a great attribute. Listening, being empathic, and responding well when employees have problems are all incredibly powerful leadership techniques.

For example, in the study The Risks Of Ignoring Employee Feedback, we discovered that if someone says their leader Always responds constructively when they share their work problems, they’re about 12 times more likely to recommend the company as a great employer. Being nice and empathic isn’t just the right thing to do; it actually has business impact.

But being nice and empathic is not without limits. For example, imagine we’ve got an employee who takes advantage of our good nature and asks us to carry their workload, bend the rules, or reveal confidential information. Or we employ a blamer who, when something goes wrong, deflects the responsibility for the issue onto somebody else. And we’ve all been in those meetings where most people are trying to do something positive and constructive, but there’s that one difficult personality who keeps sniping and oozing negativity over every good idea.

Those are all cases when, no matter how nice we want to be, we need to hold people accountable and address the problem behaviour. Because if we don’t tackle those bad behaviours (let alone people who routinely act like jerks), we’re actually doing harm to every other person on our team.

Let me say that more strongly; we may think we’re being nice to the problem employee, but we’re actually harming them because they’re never going to improve if we don’t fix their behaviour. And we’re doing harm to every other employee on our team because we’re making them suffer through a truly painful working experience.

Jerks can directly diminish (and even destroy) business value because they wield real power over other team members. And when those other team members find jerk co-workers intimidating, demoralizing and fatiguing, you’re going to see higher turnover, lost productivity, breakdowns and miscommunication, and much more.

Good people don’t want to work with low performers who divert the boss’s time and attention, slow down productivity, and turn work into an emotionally difficult environment. When we conducted a survey of more than 70,000 employees, one question we asked was, “What’s it like to work with folks who have a lousy attitude?” 87% said co-workers with poor attitudes make them so miserable that they have seriously considered changing jobs. Even worse, 93% admitted their productivity level dropped when forced to work alongside co-workers with poor attitudes.

The emotional antics and behavioural distractions displayed by difficult personalities destroy the positive flow of work. According to Leadership IQ’s study “Interruptions at Work Are Killing Your Productivity,” 71% of people report frequent interruptions at work and only 29% report being able to block out those interruptions in order to focus on their work.

There’s also the issue of time. Research shows that shaping an optimally motivated, engaged, inspired, and innovative team requires that a boss or manager spend around six hours per week interacting with employees. In fact, employees who spend six hours with their boss or manager are 29% more inspired, 30% more engaged and 16% more innovative than people who only spend one hour per week interacting with their leader.

Spending time with your best people should be a priority, but 93% of leaders surveyed said they spend significantly more time with low performers, and that includes difficult personalities. What’s more, the time spent with difficult personalities sends a clear message to high performers about where you place your priorities. And when the bulk of your time goes to solving problems created by difficult personalities, it leaves your good people without the leadership they want and need.

Even more disturbing is that difficult personalities are often happier at work than are the good people who work for you. When Leadership IQ matched engagement survey and performance appraisal data for 207 organizations, in 42% of the organizations studied, low performers were more engaged than high and middle performers. And one big reason why so many high performers are disengaged is the burn out they feel from working alongside jerks and low performers.

Tolerating jerks can also get leaders fired. Our four-year study, Why CEOs Get Fired, discovered that tolerating low performers accounts for 27% of CEO firings.  Allowing jerks to exist in the workplace can destroy a leader’s reputation and make it politically difficult to hold other employees accountable to expected behavioural standards.

And if you don’t believe me and this mountain of data, listen to your employees. In the study, New Data Reveals Why Employees And Managers Dislike Performance Appraisals, we learned that 96% of employees, managers and CEOs agree that a performance appraisal should differentiate high and low performers. But only 22% always think that their leader actually distinguishes between high and low performers. And the more an employee agrees that their leader distinguishes between high and low performers, the more likely the employee is to be inspired at work.

One final note: If you don’t hold people accountable for bad behaviour, all it does is encourage more bad behaviour. So if you really want to be a nice and empathic leader, think about the harm that will be done to the other employees on your team if you don’t address the jerks.

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