Kill the culture of “nice”: This is how you create a positive work environment

“Nice” can be a dangerous thing when it comes to developing company culture.

Does your company suffer from a culture of “nice”?

A culture of “nice” exists when people do not openly disagree with one another. Employees politely bite their tongues when they have a dissenting viewpoint. No one dares brings up a contentious topic during a meeting. Everyone is hesitant to be seen as “confrontational.”

A culture of “nice” occurs when people have genuinely good intentions, but out of a desire to be liked and to not “rock the boat,” they find it difficult to publicly argue with one another. People are not being fake or superficial — they’re just being “nice.”

Being nice is a positive human character trait. I’m not advocating for anyone to be an asshole, to any degree! But when “nice” defines your company’s culture, it’s dangerous.

A company culture of “nice” dilutes the truth of the current reality. You don’t hear bad news until it’s really bad. You only recognize a problem once it’s festered and ballooned into something serious. Your ideas for solutions are contained in an echo chamber. Your decisions become driven by groupthink.

To discern if your company has a culture of “nice,” here are four questions you can ask yourself as a leader…

What happens when someone messes up?

When someone makes a mistake, do other employees avoid telling you directly? Now I’m not suggesting you encourage “tattle-telling” in a company, but the opposite is detrimental to a company. An unwillingness to acknowledge each others’ mistakes contributes to a culture of “nice.”

How long does it take to let someone go?

How much time passes between the moment you’ve decided a current employee is not the right fit for the company, and the moment you tell them? If it’s longer than a week and you find yourself stalling, you’re guilty of creating a culture of “nice.”

Do people bring up failure?

When is the last time someone (other than you) brought up a marketing campaign that fell short, or a product line that was pulled? If your employees focus only on what’s going well and are reluctant to be critical, they could be engaging in a culture of “nice.”

Do people disagree with you in public?

When you ask for people’s opinion on an important issue, do you get passive head-nodding? Or even complete radio silence? If so, people may not feel comfortable voicing their disagreement, and your company may have a culture of “nice.”

How do you kill a culture of “nice”?

Perhaps you answered a few of those questions I posed earlier in a way that made you think, “Hmmm, we may have succumbed to a culture of ‘nice’…” No worries, you are not alone. Many companies end up realizing they inadvertently sacrifice honesty for the sake of avoiding contentious situations.

Companies that have killed their culture of “nice” slowly over time and cultivated an honest, forthcoming culture in its place, do these four things well:

Communicate that honesty and kindness are not mutually exclusive.

One of my favorite nonfiction books of all time, Crucial Conversations, talks about how our reluctance to tell people the truth comes from the fact that we see honesty and kindness as being mutually exclusive. But, they’re not. It’s possible to be both kind and honest. Communicating this with your team is key. For example, in a one-on-one with an employee you could directly say, “I see honesty and kindness as not being mutually exclusive — so don’t worry about if you think you’re being nice or not… I know you are, if you’re simply trying to be honest.

Model the vulnerability you want to see.

A culture of “nice” often takes hold when the team sees the example set from the leadership team. When managers share only their highlights and accomplishments and never admit where things go wrong… their team will never admit where things go wrong either. If you don’t talk about when you come up short, then the rest of your team surely won’t. Encourage your team to feel comfortable coming to you with their mistakes and shortcomings by admitting your mistakes and shortcomings as a leader, first.

Seek out dissent… and respond gratefully and respectfully to it.

Companies that have killed a culture of “nice” seek out dissent as much as possible. They view conflict not as something that needs to be quelled or immediately resolved — but as an opportunity to grow, learn, and improve as a company. Leaders will ask, “What a devil’s advocate point-of-view to the idea I posed?” or “How I might be wrong in this situation?” They actively challenge their own ideas in front of others. And when an alternative perspective is provided, they listen, thank the other person, and consider what they’ve learned from now hearing a contrasting viewpoint.

Don’t sugarcoat or exaggerate.

When things are going well or when things are going bad, leaders in companies where they’ve killed a culture of “nice” tell it like it is. They try to relay the truth of a situation as objectively and honestly as possible. They know if they inflate something to be more than it is, or skirt away from saying how poorly something was messed up… it helps no one.


Building the culture you want — one where people feel safe to come to you with new ideas, tough situations, bad news etc. — takes time. It’s the by-product of doing things consistently and regularly, day-in and day-out. So don’t expect that your entire team’s attitudes and behaviors will change over night. With time and diligence in doing some of the best practices I described above, you’ll be able to kill the culture of “nice” in your company.

 

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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