Why Having a Nice Company Culture is a Bad Thing

As kids, we were all taught to be nice. I can still hear my Mom’s voice telling me to be nice, and I echoed those same words with my kids on the playground. While niceness is certainly a virtue, when taken too far it can be detrimental. Somehow being ‘nice’ as adults has turned into not being straightforward and at times taking on avoidance tactics.

Avoiding conflict often exacerbates the situation, causing issues to build up over time rather than being properly resolved. This sort of ‘nice’ culture can become hugely problematic. Only when the issue is too big to ignore does it finally get addressed, and by that point it’s too late. That is, both on the micro and macro levels; from one employee who is constantly underperforming, to the entire organization suffering from nice culture.  

When we work with organizations we often hear “the culture is so nice,” “everyone is so nice around here” and at the same time we hear, “I walk around on eggshells because I don’t want to come across as not being nice” or “I don’t know where I stand but I feel my manager is holding back.” When you hear that your culture is ‘nice’ you may want to do some digging to see what your team really means by that. When you can recognize the signs of nice culture early on you can course correct. 

Failure to tackle the problem head-on will result in the following problems: 

  • Insincere Relationships 
    • Every good relationship is built on mutual honesty. While it might be tempting to assume that a little white lie is helpful by sparing feelings or avoiding awkward situations, they undermine the ability for authenticity within a relationship. A team whose relationships rely on this sort of surface-level fake-nice behavior will never be fully functional. And, it erodes psychological safety.  
  • Ineffective Management 
    • If nice culture extends to management, which it often does, there is a lowered standard for what is considered acceptable. This can impact all areas of work including productivity, engagement, quality of performance, morale and so on. Our survey and focus group data underscores that employees get fed up and leave organizations where managers are ineffective.  While positive culture is a team effort, it’s ultimately up to the leadership team to set the bar for what behaviors and results are expected. If management doesn’t hold people accountable, who will? 
  • Resentment 
    • When true thoughts and opinions get buried, the problematic circumstances remain the same and resentment starts to build up. It eventually takes a toll on your team’s mental health when co-workers are consistently fibbing, for example saying it’s “no biggie” that their colleague turned in materials late, or that the work they did was “great” when really tons of edits had to be made. We’ve all been there, and it’s not a good place.  
  • Exclusion 
    • Resentment builds up and requires an outlet, so co-workers will often begin teaming up into sub-groups and venting about other colleagues behind closed doors. These sort of ‘behind their back’ conversations do nothing but hurt people and undermine teamwork. A genuinely inclusive culture will never be achieved under these circumstances.  
  • Lowered Performance 
    • All of these factors combine to create perhaps the biggest business problem of all: lowered performance levels. When company culture is suffering, so too is your bottom line. If the hard conversations are not being had, then the standard for a job well done is constantly being lowered. This ultimately impacts those that you are in business to serve:  your clients, members or constituents.   

If you think you’re company’s ‘niceness’ may be undermining your culture, you may want to consider:   

  • Assessing your culture  
    • Partner with an external firm (we’re happy to help!) to assess the state of your current culture  to uncover the systems, behaviors, rituals and norms that may be undermining your aspirational culture and business success.  You’ll also want to develop a culture change plan that prioritizes the changes, drives accountability and reinforces the new way of being. Involve your employees in the culture journey and take their feedback to heart. Really living your values and culture takes concentrated effort – and time.  
  • Investing in coaching  
    • A series of individual, team or group coaching sessions could be just what your team needs to develop the tools to dig past nice culture. Culture change is about shifting mindsets and behaviors  and coaching is an effective way to help your people explore new techniques, observe actions and outcomes, and integrate learning into work practices.  
  • Engaging your employees 
    • Hosting facilitated workshops are a great, interactive way to engage your team through the process of developing a more positive culture. This level of engagement is a key component, because it is up to each and every individual to uphold the new culture values. We find that this is an often overlooked element in shifting culture and one of the most important.  These workshops foster buy-in and keep the work alive beyond the assessment and debrief.  
  • Encouraging healthy feedback and dialogue 
    • Invite your team to make a habit of asking for constructive feedback. This will open the door for otherwise unspoken ideas, thus creating a more well-rounded environment and outcome.  Model and teach your team how to say the hard stuff in a respectful and productive way. Encourage open, honest discussion during team meetings wherein people can freely share their ideas/opinions/concerns and engage in healthy debate. We love to use the concepts from Kim Scott’s Radical Candor in our feedback workshops.  
  • Valuing Transparency 
    • The cause of nice culture comes down to, for the most part, a lack of transparency. If your organization declares complete transparency as a top value, and insists on team members upholding that value through their words and actions, the nice problem will likely go away. 

While at first the idea that nice is bad may sound counterintuitive, there is plenty of evidence to support this claim within the context laid out above. For organizations that are burdened by nice culture, it will feel difficult to accept and address the problem. 

If we’ve learned anything here, it’s that sometimes being uncomfortable is the only path to growth and success. 

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

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