Can You Overdo People Skills?

In our leadership development work and research on overplayed strengths, people sometimes object to the idea that every strength can be taken too far. For instance, an academic journal editor once held up publication of a research article stating flatly that “it is impossible for a leader to be too supportive, caring, and loyal.”

Did that journal editor have a point? Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest American Presidents and one of our personal favorite leaders, offers a fascinating example. Like many leaders with strong people skills, Lincoln’s tremendous gift put him at risk for struggling with tough calls about his people.  His genuine liking of people and not wanting to hurt them seemed to color his judgment, and delay corrective action by giving people too many chances to turn things around. Nowhere is this more evident than in the disastrous example of how Lincoln managed George McClellan, his general in the early stages of the Civil War.

Lincoln was not alone in struggling with tough people calls. Today over half of executives are too soft on accountability. This shortfall is particularly common among those with strong people skills, who are bedeviled by two hazards when it comes to tackling performance issues. In our latest HBR blog post, we explore these two hazards that can undermine this leadership strength.

The first hazard is that caring leaders tend not to be direct, especially when there’s a conflict. They might avoid talking with the other person altogether; or soft-pedal the message to the point where the person walks out of the room blissfully unaware of the seriousness of the problem. The hazard is augmented when leaders rationalize, usually by telling themselves, “I don’t want to make anyone upset.” They’d like to believe they are being protective of the other person, when in fact they’re protecting themselves.

Leaders with strong people skills should also be aware of a second hazard: that they, like Lincoln with McClellan, will be much too slow to act. Well-liked leaders, if they are honest with themselves, shy away from tough action because they fear it will hurt their reputation. Another way that such leaders hang themselves up is by pointing to the subpar performer’s good points. But if you wait until that person has no redeeming value, you’ll wait forever. Finally, once these leaders do achieve clarity that the person needs to go, they let concerns about implementation delay action unnecessarily. “It will be hard to find a replacement” or “It’s a bad idea to make a change now because there’s been so much instability lately.” In attempting to rein in tendencies that impede your ability to deal with tough personnel issues, self-delusion is your biggest threat.

To become more effective, leaders with strong people skills should first, wake up to the fact that that very aptitude puts you at risk of misapplying it. Realize too that the more heavily you rely on those skills and the more deeply you believe in them, the graver the risk. Second, wake up to the value of the antithesis of a strong people orientation — tough-mindedness about people. Finally, be able to imagine that the height of people skill is to combine these seeming polar opposites — to take needed tough actions in a constructive, respectful way.