Can You Care Too Much?


A recent HBR blog post asks, “Can You Overdo People Skills?”

Authors Robert Kaiser and Robert Kaplan point to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s assessment of Abraham Lincoln:

Lincoln’s greatest flaw came out of his strength, which was generally liking people and not wanting to hurt them.

Kaiser and Kaplan explain that strong people skills may be problematic.   “Caring leaders” with “strong people skills”, they say, may not be direct with people about their performance.   And they may wait too long to act.

Hmm.   This isn’t how I see people skills.

Strong people skills begin with the will to have difficult conversations, at the right time.  Refined people skills enable you to navigate these conversations while balancing kindness and candor.

In doctors, we call this skill “bedside manner.”

Would you rather have a doctor who told you the truth, and helped you to recover?  Or one who cared too much to hurt your feelings?

It’s not an either/or situation.   And yet, developing this manner takes some practice.   (Ask anyone I managed twenty years ago.)

If someone on your team isn’t performing, letting them flounder isn’t just unwise.  It’s unkind.  To your employee, their teammates, your organization.   And to you.

In some circles, they’d call this Dumb Compassion.

You can care too much about being liked.   You can’t care too much about being respected.

You can care too much about whether it will hurt someone to hear feedback.  You can’t care too much about telling the truth.

And you absolutely can’t care too much about helping your people to do a good job.  Even when doing so means telling having conversations that make you feel uncomfortable.

Photo:  Abraham Lincoln memorial by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons license.

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