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Nice Guys Can Lead Too: Mastering Assertiveness Without Sacrificing Empathy

Meet Jason – a leader who shared he’d “find swimming with sharks less stressful than taking his chances with a belligerent employee”.

Are you familiar with the stereotype of the leader who is “too nice”?  

Maybe it’s something you can relate to a little more than you’d like to. 

If you can, you’ll be glad to know that you’re not the only one prioritising harmony over hostility. 

Jason was a fully paid up member of the Avoidants-R-Us Club, so, you can probably imagine the dynamics that were happening in his team. 

When I first met with him, it was obvious that Jason was (and still is) a kind bloke who felt a lot of empathy for his team, but behind his friendly demeanour, his leadership often went south due to his lack of confidence. 

He knew he had to do something, when he processed the fifth resignation in as many months, but knowing something had to be done and knowing what to actually do were two different things.

He told me he had done heaps of leadership training and while he came back armed with strategies to deal with other people, he was none-the-wiser on how to deal with himself and the way he’d almost break out in a rash every time confrontation came within coo-ee.

The sleepless nights, dysfunction in his team and morale “being in the crapper” (again in his words) was scary, but not as scary as taking on a toxic member of his team and not knowing how to manage or control the conversation, or worse still, come off looking stupid.

So, what made him actually do something about it?

Well, it wasn’t the impending sixth resignation.

It was his wife.

She was so sick of all their conversations being about his work and having to walk around on eggshells while he decompressed at the end of each day.  Jason told me that in one of their big recent arguments, his wife accused him of being addicted to struggling and that she was DONE with him putting people that didn’t matter in their marriage, over everything that did.

 “She told me I was having an affair with negativity and if I didn’t end it, she’d be asking for a divorce so me and my misery mistress could live unhappily ever after together.”

Disclaimer – I may have, ok I DID laugh at that point because I reckon that’s one of the best ultimatum lines I have ever heard.

It was her that gave him my details and suggested he come and do some work with me.

So he did – and I don’t mind sharing that he looked terrified the first time we met.

We had a chat about what he was finding hard, and what he wanted to be able to do instead. A lot of it was based around his tendency to react instead of respond and to take every suggestion, conversation and idea personally.

We decided that my Emotionally Intelligent Leadership program would tick all his boxes, and over the course of his ten sessions we uninstalled the tonnes of memorised patterns he was caught up in. 

Patterns such as avoidance, people pleasing (the wrong people), picking up everyone’s slack and having very blurred boundaries. During our work together, without him having to revisit any past experiences, it became obvious that Jason had a clearly defined link between verbal confrontation and panic.  The minute he was put on the spot, it was like he lost all ability to speak English and effectively manage difficult conversations. He would actually feel his throat closing over and he’d be met with an overwhelming desire to run, so it was no wonder that ‘freeze and appease’ became his leadership style.  

We met up for our final session last week, and he said that had he not experienced it himself, he never would have believed such a change was possible, not just in his workplace but also in his marriage.

He’s no longer taking things personally or seeing conversations as attacks.  He has learned how to stop being too nice, without having to be nasty.  He has taught people to start solving their own problems instead of being a conveyor belt of them, all by learning how to ask the right questions.

He’s able to regulate his own emotions better and feels a lot more confident in his ability to inspire others to do the same.  He’s not shying away from the tricky conversations and can give feedback that is helpful and even appreciated.  He has stopped making assumptions about people and has started making more meaningful connections with them instead.

He has learned how to mediate between feuding employees, without having to pick a side or (again to quote him) consider getting drunk first.

He’s assertive without being arrogant. He’s sleeping better and can’t seem to get his head around the fact that he’s achieving more, by doing less.

He has noticed a significant shift in his leadership style and the positive impact it started having on his team, long before the program was finished.

The great news – Jason is still a really nice guy. He’s just no longer a pushover.

In fact – to quote him: “I’m more like a welcome mat now, than a doormat”.

If you’d like to have a chat about what a reboot could do for your leadership or your team, feel free to read a bit more about what we do here.

Real change happens when your leaders and employees are equipped to enhance their internal culture, recognising and addressing, without blame, what they can’t see themselves.

Leanne Shaw
Senior Coach/Trainer
Leanne Shaw

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