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July 25, 2013

Killing the Culture of "Nice"

Written by Claire Lew

Does your company suffer from a culture of "nice"?

A culture of "nice" exists when people do not openly disagree with one another. They politely bite their tongues when they have a dissenting viewpoint. They avoid bringing up a contentious topic. They are hesitant to be confrontational.

It occurs when people have genuinely good intentions, but by a mixture of personality and perceived decorum, they find it difficult to openly voice disagreement. It's not that people are being fake or superficial - they're just being "nice."

Being nice is a positive human character trait (I'm not advocating for people to be mean, by any degree). But for "nice" to be the company 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 see a problem once it's festered and ballooned into something serious. Your ideas for solutions are bounced around in an echo-chamber. Your decisions can become driven by groupthink.

How do you know if your company has a culture of "nice"? I think there are four quick questions you can ask yourself as a leader:

(1) What happens when someone messes up?

When someone makes a mistake, do people avoid telling the person directly? I'm not suggesting you blast people in public, but the opposite is detrimental to a company. An unwillingness to point out each others' mistakes contributes to a culture of "nice."

(2) 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, you might be stalling. When you're reluctant to be the bearer of bad news, you are actively creating a culture of "nice."

(3) 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 that was pulled? If your employees seem to focus only on talking about what's going well, they could be engaging in a culture of "nice."

(4) Do people disagree with you in public?

When you ask for people's opinion on an important issue, do you get radio silence or head-nodding? If so, people may not feel comfortable voicing their disagreement, and your company may be suffering from a culture of "nice."


How do you kill a culture of "nice"?

There is no formula. Culture is founded upon each person's ingrained assumptions, stated beliefs, and repeated actions. So whatever you choose to do to shift your company's culture, it's something you have to continually practice, day in, day out.

I do think there is one essential piece to killing a culture of "nice": arguing well. I believe that the best companies know how to argue.

The best companies view conflict not as something that needs to be quelled or immediately resolved. Rather, they see conflict as a sign that people care. They trust that disagreement is how the best ideas are vetted, and the best decisions are made. They know it's an opportunity for the company to grow.

Even Jim Collins supports this observation in his widely-regarded book, Good to Great, saying: “…all the good-to-great companies had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like ‘loud debate,’ ‘heated discussions,’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and interview transcripts from all the companies.”

So argue. Know that in any organization, people will always disagree with one another. The key lies in making that disagreement public, honest, and productive.

Once you do, your company can begin to kill its culture of "nice."

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