Why “Be Nice” Is Bad Advice

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Dec 24, 2015
This article is part of a series called How-Tos.

We all have it drummed into us from an early age, the importance of being “nice.”

“Play nice with your brother” (as he and I fought over the LEGO.) 

“Sit at the table nicely” (as I fidgeted during a family dinner.) 

“Be nice to your classmates” (as we compete for the position on the sports team, or role in the school play.)

However, when it comes to business, “be nice” can actually be terrible advice.

Now I’m not suggesting you have carte blanche to be a jerk, and this is not about being inconsiderate or rude. In fact, working respectfully together – even when you don’t necessarily like your coworkers – is what differentiates the average from the great leaders and colleagues.

This is the key to personal and professional success: Instead of being “nice,” what we need to be is “kind.”

I was working with the leadership team of a healthcare company, who described their organizational culture as “family-centric.” The leaders went on to explain that they took care of their employees, many of whom had long tenure at the company (15+ years was not uncommon). It was a fun working environment, where everyone got along. It epitomized “nice.”

But, the cracks were showing – which is why I was brought in. When we began exploring the impact of their family-centric approach, the company’s leaders acknowledged that complacency was rife. The creativity and innovation needed to embrace the future and succeed in a new landscape were not flourishing. In fact, the status quo had taken a firm hold of the organization, and average was the norm.

Little Feedback

Feedback – especially tough feedback – was not part of their culture. Candor and debate of business issues was not an approach adopted by the leadership team. Individuals and teams worked around the company’s less effective employees, rather than holding them accountable (or, better yet, coaching them).

The impact that this culture of “nice” had on the company was a steady decline in their market share, which was initially blamed on external economic conditions. While there was no doubt the recent recession was a factor, it was the lack of candor in the organization that masked systematic failings with processes, products, and people. Change was needed.

Being ‘Nice’ is Bad Advice

This scenario is not unique to this healthcare company – I’ve seen it play out time and time again.

Even in the most tightknit families there are arguments, disagreements, and differing points of view that are aired (not always skillfully). While valuing the family-centric nature of their organization, the healthcare company was ultimately missing the very heart of what makes family-first successful: candor and debate.

Supporters: They are really nice to work with. They are your fan club, encouraging you, and providing advice – but only when you ask for it. When times are good, Supporters can be relied upon to help out – they don’t and won’t rock the boat. However, when the going gets tough they’ll likely turn quiet – and will be unlikely to take on any personal risk to help you.

An organization that is Supporter-based experiences false harmony, which results in status quo maintenance and, oftentimes, the achievement of short-term results at the expense of long-term success. The healthcare company I worked with was experiencing these very symptoms.

Being nice is the realm of the Supporter. A Supporter will provide the feedback you want to hear, and therefore will usually leave you in exactly the same place as you arrived.

At the healthcare company, I shared the concept of the Relationship Ecosystem. It resonated with the leadership team, who took a hard look at the role they had played in creating the current situation. They recognized that they weren’t role models for the candor, debate, and continuous improvement that they wanted to see across the organization. If change were to occur, they needed to lead the way. There was a sense of urgency to develop an organization founded on Ally Relationships.

Allies: They have your back, and are invested in your success. An Ally will address conflicts head-on – before they become issues that damage relationships, businesses, and bottom lines.

The role of an Ally is not just to be your advocate – it’s easy to be an Ally when things are going well. A true Ally is someone who can provide “tough love,” too. If there is feedback you need to hear (but maybe don’t want to hear), an Ally will
find a time, place, and a way to provide it to you. And then they won’t leave you hanging — they will work with you to explore options, navigate the situation, and coach you towards new action.

Don’t Be Nice. Be Kind.

Being nice is the realm of the Supporter: tough messages are either not shared, or diluted to the point that the feedback is no longer useful. Being an Ally – or in other words, being kind– is to share the message even if it stings – because not doing so would leave you in a far worse position.

In order for any business to succeed, there must be a voice of reason: someone who is willing to stand up and be a truth-sayer, to challenge the status quo, and to provide the feedback and insights that the organization and individuals within it need to hear. This someone can be you.

Choose to be an Ally. Your success – and that of your business – depends on your ability to be kind. Not nice. 

This article is part of a series called How-Tos.
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