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Being mean or nice won't make you a better boss

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Are you afraid that employees and coworkers will think you're mean, a jerk or a bully? Maybe you've got the opposite problem -- you're too nice, too agreeable, not assertive enough.

Most people either try too hard to be something they're not or spend too much effort defending the way they are. It might surprise you to know that, contrary to popular wisdom, research, and so-called experts, you'll be better off doing neither and just being yourself.

No, I'm not saying that managers, executives and those aspiring to leadership roles shouldn't seek to improve themselves. What I am saying is that most of the feedback and knowledge you need to do that simply comes with experience over time. It comes with the territory.

The problem is that, these days, people are sort of neurotic about self-improvement. There are so many studies, books and blogs telling you how to be a better employee, boss, manager, leader, whatever, that everyone's sort of caught in a perpetual purgatory of how to be.

Perhaps the most obvious example of that is the whole controversy over how bosses are supposed to behave.

On the one hand, you've got the Bob Sutton model. The Stanford professor's books "The No A**hole Rule" and "Good Boss, Bad Boss" suggest that bosses should be more civilized, respectful, nicer, if you will.

But a recent study, "Do Nice Guys and Gals Really Finish Last," concludes that "agreeable" people earn less than their counterparts and suggests that's a cause of the gender wage gap. And a Fast Company article citing the study explains why "being a meaner boss" is actually a good thing.

To further complicate matters, I've argued both sides of the issue, albeit from different perspectives. For one thing, human behavior is an extremely subjective and situational phenomenon. Some people are jerks all the time, just about everyone is a jerk some of the time, and some people are jerks to some people and nice to others.

And while leaders need to be assertive and confident, bullying people around doesn't do them or anyone else any good. That said, some of the greatest CEOs of our time -- Andy Grove, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison, to name a few -- have or had famously mercurial leadership styles, and that's putting it nicely.

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Now, I don't want to get in the weeds on this particular argument because, frankly, I think it's a futile distraction and a waste of time. Rather, there are a few points I'm trying to make by highlighting how confusing and subjective self-improvement can be.

Don't try to be something you're not

First, you shouldn't be mean or nice because some study or book says so. Successful careers and unique corporate cultures are built by people with strong personalities who are confident in their abilities and comfortable in their own skin. They're not built by people trying to be something they're not.

Probably the only thing that's common among successful leaders and managers is how different they all are. Nice guys or jerks, introverts or extroverts, geeks or schmoozers, they all have their own styles, unique ways of doing things, and distinct strengths and weaknesses.

Success comes from your skill, knowledge, experience, and the way you reason and make decisions. Yes, it also comes from your motivation and behavior, but in my experience, that relates more to how you act under pressure and inspire others, not whether your nice or mean.

I've known a lot of would-be leaders who were always acting, trying to please people, presenting a facade of something they're not. Deep down they're forever trying to compensate for the inner strength they don't have and the confidence they don't feel. And they weren't very successful.

Self-improvement is a journey, not an event

Second, that doesn't mean you're perfect the way you are. You're not. Nobody is. But the way you improve and grow isn't by reading every self-help book and research study you can get your hands on and walking around like a human weather vane, spinning whichever way the Internet winds are blowing that day.

Instead, think of self-improvement and personal growth as a journey. At any point in time, consider all the information at your disposal, including the counsel of your advisers and stakeholders, and then trust your instincts and do what you think is right. Do that until one of two things happens:

Something you're doing either succeeds or fails. That's a huge potential source of information and personal growth, although you'll learn and grow more from your failures than the successes.

Somebody you trust -- a mentor, boss, or peer, perhaps -- tells you something that gets you thinking about things differently. Listen when that happens. Don't take it as gospel, but consider it as a data point, no more, no less. If a bunch of data points start to line up in one direction, then you need to consider changing.

Sure, it's normal to be afraid of change, to think you might upset some sort of precious balance. Well, don't be. That's not going to happen. All the works of man and his attempts at organization notwithstanding, the universe always tends towards chaos and the business world is no different. The sooner you learn to embrace that and adapt, the better.

Finally, don't seek to improve or change out of some mistaken belief that it's something you're supposed to be doing. You'll only succeed in undermining your self-confidence and the confidence others have in you. Don't seek to be different, but to be you and know yourself. You'll get a lot further in business and in life, that's for sure.

Image courtesy of Flickr user opensourceway / Libby Levi for

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