How to succeed when your boss is 'too nice'

Handle the situation yourself, experts say

Editor's note: This story was updated on April 20, 2018.

Working for a boss who avoids conflict can put your career at risk—unless you take matters into your own hands, according to work-conflict experts who spoke to Harvard Business Review's Amy Gallo.

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"I'm 100% in favor of kindness and compassion in leadership. What I don't believe in is a boss who in the name of niceness, doesn't do what he's supposed to," says Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

Linda Hill, Harvard professor and author of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, adds that many bosses do not realize the effect they are having on their workers, and so the responsibility usually falls on their subordinates.

How to handle conflict-averse bosses

Practice empathy. Avoid blaming the boss or painting him as the enemy—he may be new and trying to gain credibility in the company, Hill says.

Address conflict-averse issues head-on. Be as concrete as possible when communicating to the boss what is expected from him. If the boss is too hands-off, consider asking for his insight.

Communicate what potential repercussions could be. Illustrate the downsides of a boss' conflict-averse behavior and use evidence to make a point, Hill recommends. "People change but not unless they're dissatisfied with their own behavior," Hill says.

Take initiative. Instead of waiting for the boss to provide guidance, write down goals, how to achieve them, and how to be held accountable if those goals are not achieved. McKeown recommends sharing the document with the boss and asking them to sign the "contract." "All the managers I've talked to say they'd welcome that level of initiative," he says.

Talk to 'higher-ups'. Ask for feedback from other managers and include the boss in these discussions. These people can provide insight and more importantly, "be your spokesperson" when the boss does not speak up for employees, McKeown says.

If the boss works long hours, must you?

When all else fails, leave

Working too long under conflict-averse bosses could have long-term, disastrous effects, according to McKeown. They can damage employees' credibility and prevent them from being promoted for fear of ruffling feathers.

"People let it go on for a long time," McKeown says, adding, "I would always prefer to work with someone who has some edge and is willing to challenge me to be better" (Gallo, "Harvard Business Review Blog," Harvard Business Review, 3/5).

Next: Why your top performers leave—and how to retain them

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Topics

Finance, Workforce

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