leaves“Notice anything?” I asked the two sweet young men I pay as gardeners as we walked around my yard.

“Nope!” one said.

“Nope,” said the other, with a grin.

I pause in front of a three-foot-high bush. I’m not sure what it’s called because I garden strictly by scientific neglect. In other words, I don’t garden at all. I barely know a rose from a dandelion. I do know, however this plant is supposed to have perfectly big, perfectly straight leaves and no holes.

“Are you sure? “ I asked.

Both bend over. Double “Nope!” Double grins. Waiting, expectantly. Like puppies looking for a treat. I pointed at three leaves with big bites taken out of them and no even surface left.

“I don’t think they are supposed to be jagged. The leaves on this plant are supposed to be even.”

“Hmm…,” one said, inspecting more closely.

“Hmm…,” said the other as he examined another leaf.

“Do you see the holes?” I asked.

Both looked again, paused, and bobbed their heads up and down as if they’d gotten the right answer on a quiz show.

“The leaves are not supposed to have holes. Insects are devouring this plant.

Both looked surprised. “Insects?” one said, with a puzzled look on his face.

“Bugs,” I said. “This plant is going to die because of the bugs. Do you have any spray you could use?”

“Oh, yes!” they replied in unison, nodding enthusiastically.

“Do you have it with you?” Double nods again. I waited.

“Would you go get it and put some on this plant?” Both ran to their truck and returned beaming, each with a bottle of something in their hands.

I thanked them and went back inside, shaking my head but not my fist. The truth is they are too nice. (And, they happen to be the nephews of a good friend who are doing “gardening” as a second job.)

The Problem with Nice

What’s the point of all this other than my unloading my frustration at both their incompetence and my unwillingness to fire them (much more the latter)? They are just too nice, AND they’re incompetent, which brings me to the point:

How many times do we hire people, learn too late that they don’t have either the skills needed to do the job well, but we keep them on, because well …they’re so nice?

We’re fond of them. We don’t want to hurt their feelings, their pride or their livelihood. We put nice people before purpose, mission, and organizational effectiveness. It may be especially true in the world of nonprofits. People choose to do charity work, not because they want to get rich, but because they want to help people. In most cases, they work there because they are caring individuals and want to work with nice people—more than they want to make money.

Of course, there are many leaders in both the profit and nonprofit worlds who are perfectly willing to terminate incompetent nice people. And, there are a few who appear to experience little pain in doing so.

These leaders, however, are the exception not the rule. What usually happens is the less than stellar but nice staff member who stays…and stays, getting no more competent and perhaps less so. Other employees soon resent the fact they are held accountable for their work but the incompetent, nice soul isn’t. Respect for the leadership withers on the vine, its leaves growing holier every day the nice person reports to work.

The bottom line here is not pleasant, but it’s true: Having the wrong people in your organization will prevent you from being as successful as you could be and competence should be the first test. In an office, if the tasks are top priorities and not doing them well or at all hurts the organization, other actions are needed.

Nice is important too. Being nice is also critical to building a culture where great people want to work. So, let’s keep nice near the top of the list of priorities, but not in the first position.

Choosing to Love Bugs

In my case, my “gardeners” have been with me for five years. I am very fond of them, kind of like my nephews. They are fine at mow, blow and go. Gardening? Not so much. So once in awhile I bring in a real gardener to feed the neglected roses, trim the branches blocking my way to my car, and tend to the bugs.

My excuse? Where gardening is concerned on my list of priorities, nice tops competence. These kids need a job, they do good enough and I can work around the rest.

If I ever find the courage to fire them, I will certainly give the next guys a leaf test.