Stop Being Nice at Work? Not So Fast!
We just spotted an article on strategy-business.com titled “Stop Being Nice at Work.” The topic drew us in, just as the provocative headline was written to do. Our mind was set against the theme to start, but once we got past the negativity, we found some value to share.
We agree with the author, Lisa Bodell, on her key point: The human tendency to avoid conflict is counterproductive in the workplace. Issues fester if not addressed quickly; they grow more malignant and harder to cure the longer the “infection” remains untreated.
We don’t think being nice is the issue, however. In our view, being “nice” means being respectful, and that has powerful positive effects in the workplace. Passiveness in the face of conflict is the issue, not “being nice.”
You can be nice about demanding excellence. You don’t have to shout, pound tables, or call people out. In fact, one critical success factor in creating a productive culture is to separate the person from the issue: Respect the person while challenging their ideas or actions. Make it clear that everyone is talented and cherished within the organization, but that no one can hang their ego on specific programs or activities (aka the status quo.) Nothing is “mine.” Everything is “ours.”
Put more colloquially: “You don’t drive me nuts, although your ideas or actions sometimes do!”
Being respectful of the person while retaining permission to challenge their ideas is a key success factor in helping leaders to foster employee engagement and raise productivity. You can take issue with ideas, old ways of doing things or flawed logic, but you must continue to very much value the person or people involved, and reinforce their potential to contribute at a high level going forward.
Once we got past the misdirection of the headline, we found a lot to like in the suggestions the author presented to “shake up” old thinking, and I love the quote from the HBO executive who emphasized the building of trust in the new mindset, removing repercussions from challenging the status quo.
The other idea I really like is setting up a cultural norm that the owner of a particular status quo is the one asking whether it is still relevant, and seeks the input for improvement. To wit:
“I created this, and it reaped some gains for us (of which I am proud). However, is it still relevant? How can we improve this part of what we do?”
Everyone takes pride in their accomplishments, but if you recognize those results without taking the next step and tying the person’s reputation to that program or activity, you can keep moving everyone forward productively.
I understand why the author of the Strategy-Business article used a catchy headline/tagline like “Stop being so nice” to get our attention, but we feel strongly that “nice” has a critical role to play in setting up an action-oriented, forward thinking culture that understands that you can be nice to people, yet be very free to challenge their ideas when the ideas seem out of alignment with the team’s mission.
What do you think? Is the author right to claim we are all too nice at work? Would you say we are too sensitive about hurting other people’s feeling, and so hold back our criticisms? How best to remove that inhibition in the interest of improving productivity? Are there cultural norms against rocking the boat where you work? Would you suffer repercussions?