Too much niceness poses a threat

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

In 1989, Bill George arrived at Medtronic, a medical technology company, as its president and chief operating officer. But something worried him from Day One: The place was too friendly and easygoing.

"For all its strengths, it was my impression that Medtronic's culture was too Minnesota nice," he writes in his book Authentic Leadership.

Most leaders fret if their employees behave too aggressively. But George detected the opposite: a softness among the workforce that bred what he calls "conflict avoidance."

So George set about to overhaul a culture that few if any employees felt needed to change. To instill a more performance-oriented mindset, he appealed to workers to advance the company's mission of serving more patients in need of medical technology breakthroughs.

George instituted a performance management system in which employees worked with their supervisors to commit to specific deliverables. For the first time, they were collectively responsible for attaining specific sales and profit targets while operating within limited budgets and well-defined schedules.

To reinforce the new culture, George became a stickler for detail. He challenged managers who glossed over problems and asked lots of probing questions that some of his subordinates perceived as meddlesome.

At one point, an exasperated manager asked George, "Is there anything you won't get involved in?" Over the next few years, some employees buckled under the new regime and left the company.

During the next 12 years (George was promoted to CEO in 1991 and chairman in 1996), the company's market capitalization increased from $1.1 billion to $60 billion.

His experience at Medtronic exposes a critical but often overlooked truth about leadership: Holding people accountable drives success.

Adopting George's approach doesn't mean you must squelch niceness. In fact, he found that by modeling constructive conflict and engaging in searching conversations with his staff about what's best for the company, the trust level actually increased and teamwork thrived like never before.

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