Are You a Nice Boss? Try Being Kind Instead.

Kindness drives real growth and improvement, but niceness preserves surface-level harmony and encourages mediocrity.

Written by Neha Sampat
Published on Mar. 07, 2024
Are You a Nice Boss? Try Being Kind Instead.
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Imagine a scenario where a team member delivers a presentation that lacks clarity and coherence. Instead of providing honest feedback to help them improve, a leader offers generic praise like “Good job!” or “Nice effort!” out of fear of causing discomfort or offense. 

3 Differences Between Kindness and Niceness

  1. Kindness sparks productive conversations; niceness creates superficial harmony.
  2. Kindness delivers honest feedback; niceness dishes out superficial praise.
  3. Kindness encourages growth; niceness fosters mediocrity.

Imagine that instead of glossing over the issues, the leader approaches the individual privately and offers specific, actionable feedback aimed at improving the presentation and the delivery of the information in the future. 

In the first scenario, the leader was nice. In the second, she was kind. 

Despite the potential for initial discomfort, the kindness lies in her commitment to supporting the team member’s professional growth and success. Plus, the wider organization benefits from more thoughtful and precise information, all because of a level of honesty that doesn’t always coexist with “nice.”

Nice doesn’t create greatness; kind does. We all know which direction we should be going in, but it’s not always easy. Here’s how and why I practice kindness (and I mean practice in the fullest sense of the word). 

Further reading How to Lead By Letting Go


Embrace Radical Candor

Leaders should prioritize radical candor, which is  combining honesty with empathy, when giving feedback. This concept, popularized by author Kim Scott, encourages individuals to communicate openly and directly while considering the feelings and perspectives of others. 

I love her motto: “Kick a** at work without losing your humanity.”

Radical candor involves delivering feedback in a way that is both challenging and caring, aiming to foster personal and professional growth. By prioritizing honesty and empathy, radical candor enables individuals to address issues effectively, build trust and promote a culture of continuous improvement and mutual respect in the workplace.

If I’m being honest, practicing radical candor is a continuous journey for me, one that demands thoughtful effort and self-awareness. The challenge lies in navigating a complex interplay of interpersonal and cultural influences that shape my communication tendencies. 

By nature, I tend to shy away from conflict, often prioritizing harmony and avoiding discomfort. And I know I’m not alone here. While it’s not universal, societal expectations and gender norms may cause women to feel pressure to prioritize niceness to avoid being perceived as abrasive or confrontational. 

But I know providing constructive criticism is worth it.

Research shows that women tend to receive “nicer” feedback than men, even when facing similar issues. This ends up holding them back from career advancement.

On the flip side, 80 percent of employees who say they have received meaningful feedback are engaged, according to Gallup data. And engaged employees not only stick around but are more productive and motivated.


Fight Against Niceness 

There have been instances where someone complimented me on a piece of work without engaging with it. While their intention might have been to be polite, I didn’t feel like they appreciated the effort I put into it. Other times, I know I didn’t deliver my best presentation and yet heard: “That was great!”

The niceness demoralized me. It was the opposite of being seen.

As a leader, I work to reinforce a kind vs. nice culture. Consider if any of these tactics would work for you.

Schedule meaningful conversations. Put these in the calendar with your direct reports and ensure they’re not a laundry list of project updates. Slack or other collaboration software is better used to cover off on those. Instead, get a little personal, discuss roadblocks  and dissect awkward moments to make them less awkward next time.

Actively seek feedback. Yes, I’m the CEO, but the team around me makes me better. One question I like to ask my team is:  “If you were in my shoes, what would you have done differently?”

Mediate conflict with compassion. During a brainstorming session, tensions can arise between team members with differing opinions. Rather than sidestepping the conflict, facilitate open dialogue. This helps the team navigate through the conflict constructively, fostering stronger relationships and collaboration. I encourage a “disagree and commit” mindset: Once a decision is made, we unify around it and move forward.

Project company values. One of our values is: “We are dream makers who challenge the status quo.” Nobody is going to get very far with status quo busting in a primarily nice environment. I make it a point to consistently remind us who we are as a team, what our collective goal is, and why they were specifically hired to help accomplish that goal.

What happens if you feel that you, as a leader,  are on the receiving end of nice vs. kind? 

Be direct and tell your team members you’re looking for honest feedback. Encourage them to address their concerns directly and respectfully. I like to start hard conversations with “This is a place and space with no judgment” so they feel comfortable sharing.

more leadership adviceWhat It Takes to Lead a Unicorn

Build an Iconic Company and Team

My goal is to build an iconic organization. I know I can accomplish this by unblocking, rallying and helping my leadership team reach its potential.

We’re not going to get there by maintaining surface-level harmony; that’s a breeding ground for complacency and mediocrity. While interactions may appear pleasant on the surface, genuine trust, innovation and growth are stifled, leading to missed opportunities for improvement

We are going to get there by addressing underlying issues and being honest about how to solve them. This leads to innovation.

There’s even a study that shows the potential impact. In 2021, Signature Consultants and national research and data firm Dynata partnered to create the Humankindindex and explore the tie between kindness and innovation. They found that an organization is five times more likely to be considered innovative if it’s also considered kind.

That number doesn’t explain whether that is a real or perceived notion of innovation; it’s awesome to think you are innovating, but I’d be curious about the outcomes.

However, I’m even more excited by another one of their findings. Employees are 3.5 times more likely to feel purpose in their jobs and connected to the company goals if they believe their work culture leads with kindness. 

Purpose is powerful. In Maslow’s hierarchy, once baseline needs — safety, belonging, and love and esteem — are fulfilled, you unlock self-actualization, which is deeply tied to purpose.

This is where the magic happens. This is where innovation, dream making and status-quo busting become part of the everyday. You can only get there with kindness.

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