Most of us were raised to “be nice” to others, and understandably so. Who doesn’t want to be considered nice? It definitely pays to show kindness, and we all like to be treated with kindness in return. But is it possible to be too nice?
Have you noticed yourself or other people in your organization avoiding a real issue? Either pretending it doesn’t exist, or choosing not to talk about it altogether? Are people walking on eggshells or withholding their true thoughts and feelings?
We’ve been speaking with leaders around the globe for the past 15 years, and during these conversations, many leaders admit that their organizations have a culture of “nice” where people are afraid to speak openly. When we ask leaders how they would describe their culture, we often hear things like, “Everyone is always pleasant to each other, and yet something doesn’t feel right. Turnover rates are high and there seems to be a lot of tension in the air.”
When these issues exist within an organization, it’s clear that “nice” isn’t always so nice. Being nice can be a good thing, but when it starts to define your company culture, it’s time for a change.
Being too “nice” causes people to be agreeable and avoid conflict. After all, to disagree might “ruffle feathers” or upset someone. The problem with being too agreeable is that the status quo goes unchallenged, innovation suffers, and according to research, it can cause teams to fall into Groupthink bias, where conformity and the desire for harmony outweigh what could potentially be the best decisions.
A common belief is that if you’re nice, people will like you, but think again. In a 2010 STUDY published in the JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, researchers observed group members playing a game and noted their reactions to members who were behaving unselfishly. Surprisingly, researchers observed that the most altruistic, generous participants were seen unfavourably. Trying too hard, or being too “nice,” led to expulsion from the group. This translates into the workplace—if you’re too nice, you’re less likely to be effective, and people notice. And when we care so much about what other people think that we withhold our true thoughts and feelings, we end up sacrificing our authenticity.
The Cost of “Nice”
Let’s take a closer look at what else a culture of “nice” or “terminal niceness” is actually costing your organization:
1. Talent – When a manager is too nice to an employee who isn’t performing, or a peer refuses to give feedback to another peer that isn’t pulling their weight, the bar for what is “acceptable” drops, and your talent pool follows. The underperformers are never held accountable for their behaviour by their leaders, so the behaviour continues, and begins to affect the rest of the team. The employees who are performing will end up having to carry the weight of the under-performers, leading them to feel frustrated, resentful, and unmotivated. As a result, relationships suffer, turnover is high, and the talent you’re able to hold onto is typically the group that is underperforming.
2. Productivity – Employees who are never told how they can improve tend to assume they’re doing great work, leading to less productivity than what’s actually possible. Leaders who refuse to confront behaviour or provide feedback end up settling for mediocrity. Mediocre work leads to mediocre results, at best.
3. Money – Low productivity and mediocre performance lead to a whole host of problems that affect the bottom line, and a business will not perform to its highest potential without the talent to get them there. Russ Edeleman, president and CEO of Corridor Consulting and founder of Nice Guy Strategies, LLC conducted a survey of 50 top CEOs. In the survey, he asked them what the cost to their business was for being too nice. Collectively, The CEOs responded by saying that being too nice cost them roughly eight percent of their gross revenues. For a business making 1 million dollars a year, that’s $80,000. For a business making $10 million a year, that’s $800,000. The inability to take initiative and go after being a better business, avoiding tough conversations with managers or other business leaders, caused their companies to miss out on opportunities that would have contributed significantly to the bottom line.
In the end, being too nice causes talent to decline, relationships to suffer, productivity to plummet, trust to erode, and the bottom line to dwindle.
Some of you may be feeling powerless in your company culture. But here’s a newsflash: the culture does not live outside of you. You are the culture. You choose it in the conversations you have or don’t have, and if you lead others, you model and reinforce those choices every time you interact with others. If you want to change your culture, you need to lead by example.
Leaders are aiming to keep top talent, build trust, provide their employees with purpose, increase value alignment, and help empower their teams to be as efficient as possible. In the end, it ultimately all depends on strong, open communication.
So what are the skills you can start practicing now?
3 Fierce Conversations
We know that conversations are the work of the leader and the workhorses of the organization—they are the catalyst for progress and change. Unfortunately, we have the tendency to avoid, dodge or ignore the need for conversation completely, but these are the conversations we need to have most. What gets talked about and more importantly how it gets talked about, determines, what will or won’t happen. Great leaders know this too—so they invite real, open, honest conversations.
So what are the 3 Fierce Conversations you and your team should be having today to help shift your culture?
The Feedback Conversation
Feedback is a conversation in which we are able to see what we may not see and help ourselves and others stay awake during gradually so that we arrive at our desired suddenly. The sad news is that most of us don’t wake up until suddenly.
As a community, we’re not doing all that great at giving feedback. A RECENT SURVEY BY GALLUP showed that millennials (the largest generation in the workforce today) need and expect ongoing feedback. Only 19% of those surveyed say they receive it routinely from their managers. Some have said this lack of conversation is what drives millennials, the generation most known for its lack of tenure, to leap from job to job.
Here are some tips for improving feedback:
1. Check Your Assumptions. Get Curious.
When we choose to give feedback, one of the mistakes we often stumble into is to make up stories about the other person and then behave as if our stories are true. This is a problem! We often make assumptions about people’s motives, beliefs, or reasons for doing the things that have led us to give feedback. Unless we learn how to skillfully have this conversation and get curious, we may never know what the truth actually is.
Ask them: Can you tell me what was going on?
This simple question can change the conversation and the relationship by giving the other party an opportunity to share their perspective of what occurred.
Ask yourself: Am I making any assumptions here?
2. Ask for it.
When it comes to feedback, we often think more about giving it than asking for it. Sometimes we do this out of avoidance since it can be uncomfortable to receive feedback. We also make the mistake of assuming that if someone has feedback for us, they’ll give it to us without being asked. The result is that we miss out on important conversations with valuable insight, and instead continue to perform blindly.
Master the courage to ask for feedback. This includes asking the people who may not have positive feedback for you. Ask yourself:
- Who would I most like to receive feedback from and what do I want to know?
- Who would I least like to receive feedback from? What am I afraid I might hear from them?
Confrontation conversations are not easy. In fact, we avoid confrontation more than any other conversation. We tend to make excuses to avoid it, and in doing so, we put off or dance around important issues that need resolution.
There are legitimate reasons to be scared about confrontation. Let’s be honest…some people do not react well when confronted, regardless of how eloquent and thoughtful you try to be. However, the cost of not having the conversation is much greater than the risk of it going badly. Confrontation is often what’s needed to solve problems.
There is a difference between being “confrontational” and skillfully confronting. One is aggressive and the other balances our need for action with empathy and understanding.
Here are two Fierce tips for you to make your confrontation conversations more effective:
1. Deliver the message without laying blame.
When we decide to confront, we run the risk of being one-sided, using an “I’m right, you’re wrong” approach. This will backfire. If you’re entering into this conversion trying to prove that you’re right and they’re wrong, you’re doomed to fail before you begin.
Instead, enter the conversation with fewer declarative statements and more questions. Ask:
- What was your thought process here?
- Is there an approach that you think would be more effective?
These questions will help to shift your context of confrontation and allow you to confront the issue rather than the person. Remember, your intent here is to help the other person improve, not “win.
2. Don’t put pillows around it.
When we put a lot of pillows around a message, the real intent can get lost. The other person may not even hear what you really wanted to say.
Consider replacing “nice” with being “in service.” When you confront directly without adding pillows, you are able to say what the other person needs to hear in order to improve. Engaging in productive conflict, while difficult, makes for better performance overall, both for the individual and for the organization.
Team meetings are commonplace where “nice” or agreeable behaviour shows up. We’ve all been in a meeting where much is being said, but no one is really talking—there may be nods of agreement, but there’s no opposition, even though we may be disagreeing in our heads.
Why do people stay quiet? Sometimes, it’s to save time. But if we feel a plan isn’t going to work, the time we will lose when it fails will be more than the time it takes to speak up. Other times, we’re afraid to speak up. We’re afraid our concerns won’t be met with openness, or that we might rub someone the wrong way. And the truth is, we might! But when we don’t speak up, we risk falling into Groupthink, and we sacrifice our truth. Our truth is worth more than a brief ruffling of feathers.
Here are some leadership solutions that can move your team from “nice” to real:
1. Actively invite multiple perspectives.
To start, make sure you’re inviting the right people to the conversation. And who you might think are the right people may not be who you actually need to bring to the table—it’s important to not overlook the people who know nothing about the business or department, and those who will play devil’s advocate. If they’re on the outside looking in, we can benefit from “outsider insight” and get a more accurate sense of what will and won’t work.
Take a moment and look at the next meeting on your calendar. Ask yourself:
- Who’s invited?
- Where is their opportunity to include others who have a different or unique perspective?
- Who will challenge me to make the best possible decision?
2. Ensure all voices are heard.
Once all the right people are in the room, make sure you hear from everyone. In most meetings, external processors tend to dominate the conversation, but it’s important to solicit input from internal processors as well. It’s important to allow enough time and space for everyone to gather their thoughts, but don’t let initial silence from some team members prevent you from asking for their perspective. You may also need to tell some “overly talkative” to allow some other voices at the table to be heard.
And possibly the most important thing to remember: don’t discount perspectives. Actively consider others’ ideas in the decision-making process. Employees can sense the “illusion of inclusion,” and it will have a negative impact on morale.
Summing it Up
Let’s take another look at the 3 Conversations that will help you shift that culture of “nice” to a culture of results.
1. Give and ask for feedback.
- Check your assumptions/get curious.
- Ask for it.
2. Confront behaviour.
- Deliver the message without blame.
- Don’t put pillows around it.
3. Have a true team conversation.
- Actively invite multiple perspectives.
- Ensure all voices are heard.
When real, open, transparent conversations happen, when employees and leaders are coming together to share their perspectives, ask critical questions, and tackle tough challenges, they are building a shared culture that increases engagement and enables the whole team to take accountability for that culture.
Ask yourself: what kind of culture do I want to be a part of? And what does that require of me? There are issues that are sometimes outside of your control. However, you still have the power to steer the culture from “nice” to one of results.
Are the conversations at your company too nice? Would you like to learn how to shift that to one of results?
Let's book a call to discuss what this can look like.