Most of us have very high standards for the work we deliver our clients.  We demand from ourselves and those on our team the best possible product. "Performance at whatever price" might be our mantra, even if it requires nagging and criticizing or even bullying. 

Yet confrontational environments feel uncomfortable to most people and over the long run are in fact not conducive to the best performance. Plus, in spite of our periodic outbursts, we still like to think of ourselves as nice guys/gals. So the dilemma becomes how to balance our insistence on high standards with being "nice." 

Can that be done?  Should that be done?

Admittedly, there is a whole cadre of lawyers for whom this is not a time-consuming inquiry.  Work is either done "right" or not, you let your people know which they’ve done and that’s the end of the discussion. Nice need not be applied.

So does the "niceness" factor matter at all? The data on this subject is fairly sparse. According to Professor Deborah Gruenfeld of Stanford’s business school, those with higher status in an organization smile less, take up more space sitting with legs and arms spread apart, and stare directly into another person’s eyes, while those with lower status smile more, take up less space through constrictive postures like crossing one’s legs, and glance away.  In other words, bosses certainly don’t often seem as "nice" as underlings, at least based on nonverbal cues.

Rudeness may in fact be perceived as an indication of success. A study asked whether power allows people to be rude, or rudeness makes people appear powerful. Unfortunately, it found that both are true. If you’re powerful, people will let you get away with being rude. And if you’re rude, people will often just assume you’re powerful. The research, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, also showed that powerful people smile less, interrupt others and speak in a louder voice. 

That is consistent with research that was pointed out in an earlier entry: people who are nice are more often given power, yet once they have power, these same people over time tend to morph into not-so-nice.

Russ Edelman, co-author of the book Nice Guys Can Get the Corner Office: Eight Strategies for Winning in Business Without Being a Jerk, contends that being too nice can seriously stymie career success. Edelman notes that managers who are too nice may be reluctant to make decisions on their own. They might fear hurting the feelings of anyone they don’t ask for input, so they include everyone in their decision-making, wasting time and missing opportunities. Managers who are too nice may also try to avoid confrontation, preferring to ignore problems than address them, even though ignoring problems often makes them worse.

And employees who are too nice can cost businesses time and money, according to Edelman. In a survey of 50 CEOs, CEOs estimated that being too nice cost them 8% of their gross revenues.

John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society, believes that mangers who don’t have honest discussions with others (such as during a performance review) for fear of hurting feelings are in fact not being nice at all and are doing a disservice to the people they manage, as well as the company.

1-800-GOT-JUNK CEO Brian Scudamore has a strategy he calls "race to the conflict." The idea is that employees should race to get conflicts resolved as quickly as possible, regardless of how painful the discussion might be. If they don’t, they’re wasting time–and costing the company money.

There may also be a personal financial cost to being nice. Researchers found that  men who rank high in agreeableness (the psychological trait of valuing getting along with others) make substantially less than men who are less agreeable. Across studies, this difference was as high as $10,000 per year. Women’s earnings were less correlated with the trait. This study also found that agreeable men were rated least attractive as potential leaders.

At the 2012 Caliper Global Conference held last week, keynote speaker Daniel Goleman, the father of the popularization of emotional intelligence, told the crowd that empathy was one of the hallmarks of good leaders. Yet Caliper’s own data shows that the personality trait called empathy that they measure is negatively correlated with high performance in leaders. 

Where’s the rub?  Calipers explained that the problem lies in the trait of "accommodation," that is, in giving up one’s own opinion or preferred action in order to accommodate that of someone else’s.  Those empathizers who are also high in accommodation (a common confluence) are the ones who end up not being great leaders. As we quoted from David Brooks in a recent entry, "Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action."

There is another trait that when coupled with empathy does produce the best leaders. That trait is courage. Courage is what is needed to overcome a "nice" reluctance to confront issues or people. "Tough decisions almost always involve aggressive, rock-the-boat kinds of actions and take a great deal of personal courage."

Empathic, "nice" leaders are most likely to develop loyal teams that try hard to please them.  But the time will come when in spite of that empathy, those leaders will need to take a course of action that will not please competitors, staff or suppliers or their own team members.  Delivering that unwanted decision in a respectful way is almost more important than delivering the content of the decision itself. Yet for many empathic leaders, nothing entirely takes away the sting of being perceived as "not nice."

Not that finding the right combination is easy. A psychologist friend recently said that he considers achieving this tough-vs-nice balance the single most important challenge in both our professional and personal lives.

President Obama’s recent claim of having erred on the too-nice side in his first debate with his competitor for office may be another demonstration of how far and wide that challenge reaches.