The Problem with Being “NICE”

My work can be like that of a doctor or detective. I treat clients with a slew of symptoms, and we have to dig to get to the root of the problem. These symptoms manifest as: “Our growth is stalled.” “We’re having trouble retaining our customers.” “We merged, and the two companies just aren’t jiving.” “Morale is low, and our success rate isn’t what it used to be.” “We don’t have a team of innovators.”

When a CEO presents me with these clues, the diagnosis often comes down to a troubled company culture. Simply speaking, culture is “the way we do things around here.” Once in a while that way of doing things is being too nice.

Nice is the safe word we use to describe someone or something when we can’t think of anything better to say. Being nice may not sound so bad in today’s combative, divisive environment, but it is a word so commonly used it has almost lost its meaning.

In my world, NICE stands for “Not Interested to Care Enough.” When people say you’re a nice person or your company is a nice place to work, it is not always a compliment. It is a behavior. And it is one we are all guilty of displaying from time to time – being polite, seemingly helpful, never controversial, and ultimately superficial. If you are described as simply “nice”, it probably means people don’t feel like they can dig any deeper with you.

Nice alone is akin to apathy, indecisiveness, inauthenticity, and a host of other ills that, in business, spell trouble for the bottom line. In fact, being too nice can hinder innovation and cost up to 8 percent of annual gross revenue.

Stories from the Trenches

I witnessed its direct negative effects at a large financial services institution. Not only were the staff too nice to each other, they were too nice to their customers. Instead of laying out a suite of options, they let every account customize solutions to the nth degree. The end result was an unsustainable mess of one-off products that couldn’t scale. The organization backed itself into a corner by being too afraid to say “no.”

I’m also reminded of a nonprofit client where “review by committee” had become a way of life. Their heart was in the right place because after years of leadership transitions and other big changes, the C-level wanted all staff to have a voice. But this was a living nightmare when every decision, big or small, had to earn buy-in from every possible department. Project leads had no ownership of their work, deliverables were mediocre because they were massaged to accommodate all the disparate input, and any actual progress took forever.

The nice effect can even happen to a fancy tech company like Pinterest, where politicking, indecision, and passive aggressiveness has led to an inability to scale or compete with larger rivals.

Inclusion Gone Awry

To be clear, I’m a big proponent of diversity and inclusion. An inclusive culture is essential for ensuring the health and longevity of your company. Staff should feel like part of the enterprise, not mere cogs in the wheel.

But this doesn’t mean avoiding conflict. When inclusion is misapplied in this way, people are too afraid to embarrass themselves or each other. Compromising each and every time might feel good, but the end product is usually watered down and ineffective. Your organization will miss opportunities in the pursuit of complete consensus – and staff will lose motivation because work moves at a glacial pace. What’s more, you won’t grow the way you want or need to.

Sound familiar?

The Sweet Spot

As with many things in life, it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. In a healthy corporate culture, people care about themselves, the people they work with, and the greater good. Colleagues can challenge someone’s idea while remaining respectful – no other filter is necessary.

On the other side of the spectrum, open hostility has become en vogue in some workplaces, especially among startup circles. Citing Steve Jobs as a role model, these leaders claim they need to be brutally honest to get their points across. This is simply a poor excuse for confrontation and rudeness, and I counter that’s no model for any CEO or corporate culture.

The Cure for NICEness

If you suspect your company is too NICE, start by showing that you are both interested and caring. As with any cultural change, things will turn around over time if leadership models the right behaviors, incentives are reinforced, and people share success stories.

What does that look like?

Turn meetings on their heads: Invite everyone in the room to say their piece and ask managers to speak last. Say point-blank: “What angle am I not thinking of here? Where could this plan go wrong?”  This is a powerful way to surface unspoken ideas with strategic implications because you should actually care about those answers.

Debate ideas openly: Yes, constructive dialogue is a good thing. You don’t always have to agree with everything. But have the conversation. Play devil’s advocate, if you’re so inclined. As long as you enforce civility, great new ideas are bound to emerge. I’ve even seen working relationships grow stronger as colleagues gain newfound respect for each other through healthy debate.

Cap the decision-making process: We all know (and despise) that feeling of spinning your wheels or of seeking endless buy-in. What if you set a policy that any given problem should be handled in two meetings or less? Or that it only takes three people with sufficient information to make a decision? The idea here is to drive the autonomy that employees find so energizing. Sure, they’ll make mistakes – but that’s life, and that’s business.

Be transparent with feedback: When providing insights, strike the balance of coming from a place of caring with speaking the truth. Don’t mistake this for passive-aggressiveness, as you want people to know where you stand. Think about sports coaches – they wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t give honest feedback to correct their athletes’ technique.

Wouldn’t it be nice to work at the intersection of inclusion, honesty and strategy? You can – if you’re intentional about it.

Shaara Roman is founder and managing director of The Silverene Group, a culture consultancy that helps companies align their people programs with business goals.