To be an effective HR professional, sometimes it’s necessary to be cruel to be kind.
Being nice can cost you a promotion and a pay rise, according to various studies. Research by Wiley about personality traits and career success indicates that agreeable people, characterised as those who are compassionate, friendly, polite and empathic, tend to have a lower occupational standing than their less accommodating counterparts.
Another study by Sage found that nice people are paid less.
Why is being nice self-defeating?
The two factors outlined as linking agreeableness to worse professional outcomes were that they are more likely to sacrifice personal success in an effort to please others, and that their desire to be agreeable makes them poor or reluctant negotiators. Agreeable people won’t angle for higher salaries, or push for promotions.
The opposite end of the spectrum, of course, are people who don’t have agreeable traits at all. While narcissistic personality types have their own problems, according to this article in The Conversation they are also linked to higher incomes.
But for HR, are there other reasons why being nice is not such a good idea? Previously a contributor to HRM previous argued that an HR career is not for “nice” people. But what does that actually look like?
Do overly-agreeable people have no place in HR?
Rhonda Brighton-Hall, CEO and Co-Founder of HR consultancy, MWAH (making work absolutely Human) says if HR professionals go overboard with the empathy, they are not actually being helpful.
“Let’s take an HR manager who is super empathetic, for example. It can actually be quite debilitating. If you get too wrapped up in a story you can lose what your role is. What has often transpired in situations like these is that there is a need for affirmation and to be liked rather than actually showing real empathy.”
Brighton-Hall says HR professionals need to listen and show empathy, but there are limits. The most important thing you can offer as an HR professional is to get somebody into a place where they’re most likely to succeed, wherever that place is, she says.
In reality, when it comes to performance HR professionals aren’t there to make friends, or be liked. They are there to empower better results.
The really tough conversations
Things obviously get more tricky the more difficult the situation. But HR professionals can be constructive, relevant and helpful while at the same time show empathy and be agreeable.
If a person has proven incapable of performing in their role despite adequate coaching and support, at the end of the day you can’t have other people continuously covering for them, says Brighton-Hall.
“The most empathetic thing you can do in that situation is to help them find another job more suited to them – either by finding them something else to do in the company or giving them time to source another role, or help them figure out what they are good at or interested in.”
You need to do this because a worse conversation would be imminent in a month’s time, she says.
Another example, what if a staff member has been taking a fair amount of time off work on sick leave? It’s the job of HR to get to the bottom of the problem. The situation should be broached by stating the facts says Brighton-Hall.
“It should be pointed out that this person is not there at work, and everyone is covering for them in their absence. It’s an unhealthy environment for the team,” she says.
If, when confronted, that person comes back with the news that they have a serious illness, measures can be put in place that can be beneficial to both them and the team.
“The vast majority of teams will be open to helping out in some way. They might arrange a different woking agreement or more flexible arrangement for the next couple of month or so while they recuperate,” says Brighton-Hall.
Learn how to have difficult conversations and still maintain harmonious working relationships after, with the AHRI short course ‘Having difficult conversations’.