Home / News / Business Of Life /  Why tough love works at the workplace, and being nice is a sign of weak leadership

Tough love is hard to practice whether at home or at work. The whole idea of demanding and rewarding performance does not have deep cultural moorings in India and practising tough love does not come easy to many Indians.

Tough love is a combination of strong goal orientation and strong people orientation. This would seem like a contradiction for most people. Doesn’t people orientation mean you would demonstrate empathy, understanding and love irrespective of the individual’s commitment to goals? Isn’t demanding performance and offering empathy at the same time a bit contradictory? The answer is “no". People orientation is about demonstrating a deep commitment to the holistic development of the people you lead. While empathy, understanding and love are essential, the other essential element is coaching them and holding them accountable. Teams where the leader demonstrates tough love learn the fine art of creating meaningful and transparent conversations. They develop a healthy respect for timelines and tend to keep promises made to peers and team members. There is a climate of learning from everyday experiences, providing honest and impersonal feedback on a regular basis, and an overall culture of accountability and high performance. Poor performers quickly opt out voluntarily and if they don’t, would soon be urged to do so.

What leaders really want

Love and empathy without holding people accountable for agreed goals is weak leadership that creates a culture of tolerance and acceptance of non-performance. In such cultures, those who seek to hold people accountable are seen as “aggressive". Leaders don’t hire people who ask questions or could pose a threat. Mediocrity is celebrated, free riders are common in such workplaces, and non-performers thrive. Rewards are by rotation and more for “loyalty" and “good behaviour" than for results or performance. Conflict is not dealt with openly. On the surface, there is a lot of bonhomie and seeming collaboration but dig deeper and you will notice complete confusion because the difficult issues have never been discussed and resolved conclusively.

There are also “taskmasters" who have a strong goal orientation with little or no people orientation. The culture they create is one of fear and compliance. People don’t voluntarily give their best and do not often go beyond complying with the bare essentials. Succession planning, innovation, collaboration, and continuous improvement are non-existent. Business metrics do well for a while and things appear good on the surface. However, cracks soon begin to show. The underlying cause is not easily understood until things worsen and good people start leaving. Things begin to fall apart when supervision is stretched thin or withdrawn.

How easy or difficult it is to practice tough love? In some cultures this comes more naturally than others, and it comes more naturally to some individuals than others. If the founders or the senior-most leaders of the organization understand it well, it percolates to the rest of the organization. Those who can’t practice this will soon find themselves in uncomfortable situations.

I’ve seen some individuals who are exceptionally good at this. Their common traits were an ability to speak their mind easily, ask questions, and get the silent spectators in meetings out of their comfort zones. They have an eye for talent and an ability to spot and confront the under-performers early on. They push people hard but provide support at the difficult points as long as the individual is doing her best. They use every meeting as opportunities for spotting talent, raising the bar, creating goals, driving collaboration, dealing with conflict, and above all holding people accountable.

If you are inherently comfortable with some of these you can hone your skills and get better. If you refine this skill, you would find it rewarding and fulfilling in the long run.

T.N. Hari is head of human resources at and an adviser to several venture capital firms and startups.

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