Saccharin Leadership: Enough Already With The Sugar-Coating

Saccharin Leadership: Enough Already With The Sugar-Coating

One of the principles of great leadership and a way the most successful leaders distinguish themselves – in any industry – is by building great relationships with their colleagues. They have unwavering reputations for being authentic, empathetic, and reliably honest. Global research from Edelman’s Trust Barometer reveals that despite integrity being the most desired leadership quality, only about 25% of people think their bosses actually have it.

According to Merriam-Webster the definition of integrity is: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values and the quality and state of being complete or undivided. If integrity is the most desired leadership quality and if we commit to being authentic, truth-telling business partners and true leaders then why is it that being radically truthful frequently results in a leader’s style being assigned to the bucket of being “harsh” or “abrasive” – even when delivered from a place of empathy and true career guidance? Truth is, that truly invested, interested, and emotionally mature talent wants the absolute truth about – and dialog around – their performance.

Empirical research by Dr. Edward E. Jones, the social psychologist, who first studied and reported on ingratiation states, “When evaluators gave critical reviews to experimental subjects role-playing employees, those who expressed what was wrong immediately were significantly more respected than those who began with praise and ended with, ‘the bad news is…‘. As effective leaders, we recognize that if we want to support the growth and career path of our colleagues we have to commit to delivering coaching in it’s rawest form – objective and real truth.

Types Of Saccharin Leadership To Beware Of

According to Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity at some point or another all leaders are guilty or will be guilty of sliding into these categories. When we engage in these excuse-driven or apologetic styles of feedback we harm the business and we harm the employee we are speaking to and that we have committed to supporting.

  • RUINOUS EMPATHY: This is when we care too much and are concerned about potentially hurting the feelings of the person on the other end of the dialog to their ultimate detriment. To get past ruinous empathy, leaders need to recognize that over-indulging empathy in-the-moment as you deliver a message can have long term ramifications. As a leader, when we sugarcoat feedback or don’t address issues we are, essentially, setting people up for bigger failure, and depending on the industry you are in – a future, potential big HR issue.  These leaders use the – always disastrous – “strategy of hope” as they “manage” their team and as they interact with colleagues. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have been privy to where the leader apologized profusely for delivering feedback to the team member or spoke entirely in generalities and used examples of poor performance they have witnessed in the past in lieu of actually addressing the performance issues of the person sitting in front of them and hoping that the issue would fix itself.
  • OBNOXIOUS AGGRESSION: The sad – but real – fact is that people would prefer to work for a competent jerk and know exactly where they stand than work for a kind-hearted, but incompetent boss, whose niceness precludes honest dialogs. There are some bosses out there that are so consumed with results that they forget to behave with human kindness and/or who lack any visible or verbal empathy when delivering feedback/coaching. We have to recognize and value the fact that on the other end of the dialog is also a human complete human emotions, feelings, and reactions. Great leaders lead through kindness AND honesty- it absolutely helps people digest the message in a more proactive and productive way.
  • MANIPULATIVE INSINCERITY:  Similar to ruinous empathetic communicators – however, the feelings and reputation they hope to spare is their own. These leaders are consumed with being liked, and being thought of as “cool”, and that their leadership popularity stays in tact. Ms.Scott states: “Manipulatively insincere people think they can gain some sort of political advantage by being fake, or do so when they are just too tired to care. These leaders never say what they actually think. They just attempt to push people’s emotional buttons in return for some personal gain.” This is the manager who thinks, I’m not going to address this issue because I don’t have the time to explain why it was so bad or I am not in the mood for confrontation. I’ll find someone else do it next time”.  This is an extremely cowardly position to take and though you may be liked – you will never earn the reputation of being a great leader or a great mentor.

Creating A Culture Of Candor

As always, when establishing a culture standard and insisting on candor throughout your team, leaders need to be role models: They must share more information, look for counterarguments, diversify their sources of information, admit their mistakes, and behave as they want others to behave.

TELL THE TRUTH: Leaders who are candid signal to their team that candor and honesty are valued in their working relationships. In these cultures vision and values aren’t arbitrary, they are deliberate and consistent. Given that assurance, team members become more willing to stick their necks out, share information, collaborate, support, and put themselves on the line to help their colleagues, their leaders, and the organization achieve their objectives.

ENCOURAGE CANDID DIALOGS: As leaders, we expect our team members to listen and absorb what we are teaching them and guiding them towards. The strongest workplace relationships are symbiotic. We need to insist on two way radical candor for the culture to be a living, breathing success. If we only expect and want to share our perspective with our team members but don’t want to hear theirs in return, it’s a problem. Unfortunately, most leaders don’t encourage candor and as a result there is, frequently an element of terror that comes with daring to speak truth to your superiors. As a respected leader, the more you seek to solicit and engage in conversation around the varied perspectives from your team the easier it will be for them to know that sharing and truth is a benefit to the team and the organization.

RECOGNIZE INNOVATION: It is difficult for people to put themselves on the line to change [or even question] a process or a policy. When people possess the chutzpah to deliver improvement, solutions, or forward-thinking ideas to organizational challenges, they should be recognized. Sustaining a culture of candor is oftentimes more difficult than creating one. When you create a culture that values, recognizes, and rewards innovation, consistently – you will keep the ideas and solutions flowing from your team. We can never take that for granted. We want people to surface and deliver ideas and suggestions to elevate the business. We need people to challenge the status quo. To remain relevant in today’s evolving business world we need to stay nimble and adaptable and a singular point of view is dangerous.

PRACTICE HAVING UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATIONS: One of the biggest and most consistent examples of challenges with communication that I can always rely on to make my point about the level of candor on a team or in an organizations – is by pulling quarterly performance appraisals  I rarely see any PA’s that are under a “meets” performance when I review them when/if I am working with a specific team. But ask the team leader about their team members – oh boy – will you hear of some performance short-comings of at least one of those reviewed employees. As leaders, we cannot use hope as our strategy. We need to pluck up the courage to have difficult conversations with our team when there is a performance opportunity identified. There is a lot of empowerment that comes from being a courageous and well-rounded leader and there is a benefit to each team member knowing exactly how they are doing.. If you are nervous – practice. If you have team members that aren’t comfortable delivering honest feedback, work with them – let them practice with you.

ADMIT YOUR MISTAKES: We are all human and admitting that we’ve messed up not only disarms the critics but also makes our employees more comfortable to vocalize their own mistakes.  Great leaders who build great teams don’t resort to excuse making or assigning blame. They are 100% open and honest about their failure and they immediately take action to fix the damage.

BE TRANSPARENT WITH INFORMATION: In way too many organizations, employees hoard captious information because it can be their only opportunity to be recognized by leadership, or the perceived culture [or lack thereof] is one in which employees believe information should only be shared for strategic, political reasons. In healthy cultures, team members are significantly more open about sharing information, best practices, and celebrating the successes of their colleagues.

BE CONSISTENT: One of the biggest challenges we have, as leaders, is to be extremely consistent with the culture we create and support. As a leader you must “show up” every single day. Lead and deliver the culture by example and with purpose. Support the vision and values of the business and bring alignment around these things into performance, results, and goals for your aggregate team. We must hold everyone to the same standard of performance and ensure that everyone is contributing positively to the team dynamic. If you have team members who are victimized by honest and objective feedback, there is an opportunity with your hiring strategy.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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