I’ve touched on ‘niceness’ before in my Rambling On articles, but I recently read a great article from Timothy Clark for Harvard Business Review which condensed the hazards of a ‘nice’ company culture into the problem, the reason and the cure into one. Well worth reading if you’re concerned your ‘nice’ company culture may not be as robust (or real) as you would love it to be.
I’ve summarised the key points below, but you can read the full article, here.
Martin Luther King Jr. said in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail:
…there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
Don’t cover that up in your efforts to be nice.
We’ve all been there…
Have you ever attended a meeting that wasn’t the meeting? Everyone was pleasant and agreeable in the room, but then filed off to engage in back-channel conversations and hold kangaroo courts? This kind of charade is one of the many symptoms of a ‘nice’ culture. But what’s touted as niceness is often nothing more than the veneer of civility, a cute nod to psychological safety, a hologram that falsely signals inclusion, collaboration, and high performance.
In many of these cultures, leaders have simply spread a thin layer of politeness over a thick layer of fear.
There is the appearance of harmony and alignment but in reality, there’s often dysfunction simmering beneath the surface that results in a lack of honest communication, intellectual bravery, innovation, and accountability.
When the intention gets lost…
The intention to create a ‘nice’ company culture is hardly something leaders should be chastised for, often there is a genuine desire to cultivate an environment of collegiality and pleasantness. But sometimes there are other measures at play…
Why do leaders pursue ‘niceness’
To avoid conflict and gain approval
As a reflection of their own desire to be liked, leaders often avoid conflict and stigmatise dissent. They would rather be nice than offend, misbelieving that those are the only two choices.
To replace genuine inclusion
Some organisations see niceness as a proxy for inclusion. They believe that to be nice is to be humane. When you see diverse employee populations self-segregate based on natural affinity groups, it could be an indicator of an unspoken “separate but nice” philosophy.
To show exaggerated deference to the chain of command
In fear-based organisations, niceness keeps you safe. The logic is that if you don’t provoke the ire of those in power, you have a measure of job security.
To motivate people instead of holding them accountable
Yes, interpersonal warmth creates a conduit of influence, but you still need accountability. I once worked with a highly affable CEO, who, to his eternal consternation, created a toxic nice culture in which people would hug each other and then not follow through on commitments.
The Dangerous Downsides of a Nice Culture
It slows crisis activation
Nice cultures tend to nurture the false dichotomy that you can either be nice or you can hold people accountable, but not both. At times, inertia becomes so strong in a nice culture that the organization loses its ability to act pre-emptively. People wait until a problem becomes too big to ignore.
It can choke innovation and creativity
By its very nature, innovation disrupts the status quo. And yet it’s the lifeblood of growth. Innovation is also a social process that requires divergent thinking and courageous conversations. Pervasive niceness suppresses this process, creating an intellectual muzzle that can turn teams of exceptionally talented people into dysfunctional groups.
You’ll likely end up bleeding talent
Talented people want to make a meaningful contribution. A-players want a healthy culture in which they can be rewarded for challenging the status quo. As one A-player who worked in a large pharmaceutical company said to me, “I’d rather work in an authoritarian toxic culture than a nice toxic culture because in the authoritarian toxic culture, they would at least tell me that I’m wrong when I challenge the status quo. I can provoke the system, force a reaction, and maybe that will lead to something. In a nice toxic culture, they humour you and then nothing ever happens.”
In a nice culture, there’s pressure to go along to get along. A low tolerance for candour makes the necessary discussion and analysis for decision making shallow and slow. You either get an echo chamber in which the homogenisation of thought gives you a flawed decision, or you conduct what seem to be endless rounds of discussion in pursuit of consensus. Neither is good.
An invisible norm of niceness can induce conformity, passivity, and learned helplessness that lowers the bar of performance.
How to combat ‘niceness’
Clarify expectations, standards of performance, and meeting types
Ambiguity (which is dreadful for many things in business) feeds toxic niceness. So clarify how you expect people to treat one another and hold each other accountable. Be explicit that you expect intellectual honesty, candid feedback, and tough questions. This change won’t be easy so it’s imperative that you clearly explain the organisation’s current state, future state, and how the transition between the two will work.
Publicly challenge the status quo you helped create
Put your ego aside. Don’t expect others to muscle through the fear and usher in a new era of truth-telling if you haven’t modelled the behaviour first. You must be the first mover, demonstrating vulnerability and fallibility, and showing people that candour is rewarded
Provide air cover for candour
When people do have the courage to express dissenting views and speak candidly, protect them. Reduce the risk of ridicule by thanking those who do.
Confront performance problems immediately
When you don’t address a performance problem, you condone it. And if you hesitate to take action, you create confusion. Hold people accountable privately and respectfully.
A great article and some really excellent, practical advice for agency leaders and founders – or any leaders and founders for that matter.
Every Wednesday I book out an hour to hold a FREE agency leaders surgery. If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues. You can help yourself to my calendar, here. Speaking to a diverse group of agency leaders helps me stay current and contextualise the issues I’m seeing with my clients. So please see this conversation as a genuine collaboration where we both hope to learn something new.