Nice People Can be Bad Bosses. Way Too Often.

I’m troubled. The problem, in a nutshell, is that saying jerks and idiots are bad bosses is a bit too easy. It implies that not being a jerk or worse makes you a good boss. And that’s not always true. Nice people can be bad bosses.

I like Bob Sutton’s work a lot. He blogs at Bob Sutton Work Matters, he teaches at Stanford, and his books are good and good for you. I’ve quoted him often on this blog. His latest book, Good Boss Bad Boss, is brilliant. Every boss should read it.

Still, there’s this problem: By focusing so much attention on what not to do, and who not to be, we tend to undervalue the hard side of being in charge.  Being a good boss also means following up on unmet expectations and disappointing performance with leadership, advice, teaching, and demanding better.

I think I did this wrong myself. I think I let being a supposed nice guy interfere with my managing a company. You can’t be liked by all and also optimize performance. Sure, some people work best when left alone and encouraged, but – hard, ugly truth – others lose interest and grow entitled. Good bosses deliver both positive and negative feedback. Good bosses make the company better.  Whether they’re liked or not.

This is not Bob Sutton’s fault, not the fault of his work. But he tells great stories of jerks and idiots, and stories are powerful, so stories gather. So we unconsciously think being a boss is about being nice. We forget the hard part.


  • 7 Ways The Nice-Person Boss is Bad for Business says:

    […] wish I’d had this list last Fall when I posted Nice People Can be Bad Bosses Too on this blog. I wrote then: I think I did this wrong myself. I think I let being a supposed nice […]

  • Matt M says:

    It’s inevitable that either you or someone you know will work for a bad boss sometime during your professional career. Bad bosses can come in a variety of forms and can cause untold damage to a firm’s productivity (and in some cases, people’s health).

    Working for a bad boss has a large effect on your work experience and your performance. Whether you’re the one in this relationship, or know someone affected by a bad boss, we have a few tips (See: for how to cope and make the most of the situation..

    Matt M.
    CEB Views

  • Bob Sutton says:


    I think this is a great and very insightful post. In fact, in the talks and interviews and I have been giving on Good Boss, Bad Boss, especially in recent weeks, I have been emphasizing that in some ways a nice but incompetent boss is worse than a nasty competent boss because they can be so hard to fire. This was motivated by an experience I had recently (I have to disguise it heavily) with a board that knew their CEO was bad, but took forever to fire him because he was such a nice guy. I imply this point in Good Boss, Bad Boss, but if I could revise it one more time, I would make this point much more explicit. So I plead guilty as charged! Again, thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Bob, thanks, I’m so glad you found your way here. Guilty as charged? Ha! You can tell I really like your work. Keep it up. Tim

  • cynthia kocialski says:

    I agree. I’ve been working in the hi-tech industry for many years. I’ve worked for a couple of managers that I could walk all over. These were much too nice guys, who didn’t like to say no to anyone, or deliver bad news, or be confrontational – they were always accomodating to everyone, they wanted to please everyone. As a 2nd line manager, I once had a line manager like this. He wanted to fire someone in his dept, but when he gave the person a performance review, the person thought he was doing a brilliant job and would be getting a spectacular raise. He was at his wits’ end and I ended up having to fire the employee for him.

    How many times have I heard depts complain about their new appointed manager because they felt the most technically competent person should be the manager. Management is not about technical skill, it’s about dealing with people. The best technical person is most likely the least likely to be able to handle people.

  • dyuane says:

    I never had a nice boss. So I don’t know it would be true or not.

  • Sara says:

    Sounds a lot like advice on being a good parent. A good parent teaches by example and by discipline, much as a good boss enables you to do your best in whatever job you do.

  • Jake P says:

    Hey, I resemble that remark! I confess that back in my corporate days, I was a soft touch far too often. As a self-motivated person who hates being nagged, I was reluctant to be persistent about many of the items you mention, quite often to my detriment.

    I’m much happier as a freelancer, and have no desire to have any FT employees, but find that I’m able to manage subcontractors just fine. The relationship is different enough from manager-direct report that I don’t have trouble with it.

    Great insight, Tim. Will definitely check out the book.

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