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Build a kind culture (not a nice one)

Striving to build a culture where people are nice to one another seems like a worthy goal. However, does a ‘nice’ culture signal true kindness and respect and genuinely drive wellbeing and success?

Let’s start by breaking down what is meant by nice and how it differs from being kind.

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The word nice comes from the Latin word nescius, meaning ignorant. Today, nice is defined more along the lines of “pleasing, agreeable, delightful and amiably pleasant”.

Kind, on the other hand, which comes from the old English (ge)cynde, essentially, treating others as family – is now defined as having a “good or benevolent nature or disposition”.

There is a clear difference here. On the one hand, there’s pleasing others and, on the other, there’s benevolence, in other words, doing good to others. Would you rather work with colleagues who are aiming to please you, or trying to do good?

Nice and kind cultures have some similarities in that the people in both types of culture care about each other. Employees are mindful of colleague’s feelings and treat each other with warmth.

However, in a culture of kindness, people are encouraged to express this care through openness and respectful challenge, whereas in a culture of niceness, people may hold back from sharing their true thoughts for fear of upsetting others.

This means that employees may not challenge how things are done and they shy away from holding people to account.

So, what can HR do to build a kind culture?


Champion (respectful) honesty

Imagine that you’re discussing the solution to a problem with a colleague but you disagree on how to approach it. By being ‘nice’ and aiming to please them, you might just say you agree with their idea. However, by trying to do good (being kind), you would take the time to hear them out, share your honest thoughts and respectfully debate the pros and cons.

Creating space for this type of authenticity will also contribute to wellbeing.

There are, of course, times when unfiltered honesty might not be wise. Before speaking your mind, you might want to ask yourself: Have I built enough rapport? Is this the right time and place? Most importantly, how can I combine honesty with kindness?


Don’t be too inclusive

Inclusivity is critical in fostering wellbeing, ensuring everyone’s voice is heard and getting the most out of your people. But you can be too inclusive.

In a ‘nice’ culture people might want to include everyone in the conversation. Whereas it’s kinder (and more efficient) to carefully consider why someone should be included.

Not only does this ensure timely decisions are made at the right level, but only including people when there is a genuine opportunity for them to add value means demonstrating that you respect their time, energy and input.


Recognise and reward the ‘what’ and the ‘how’

Caring about people and business do not have to be mutually exclusive sentiments; kindness means being nice and holding people to account. A classic management dilemma is prioritising the needs and wellbeing of the individual while at the same time thinking about organisational targets and potentially navigating difficult conversations around individual performance.

It could be said that in recent years, how people get their work done has become more important than what they get done. This is certainly a risk for ‘nice’ cultures.

You get the behaviour you measure, so be sure to reward and recognise both the what and the how in a way that makes it clear that they’re not competing concepts.

Managers and leaders play a particularly important role here. Questions for HR could be: What behaviours do managers recognise within their teams? Is it when people step up to help colleagues or when they achieve great results, or a mix of both? What signals are we sending out about how we welcome challenge and feedback?

The recent focus on the individual and their wellbeing could run the risk of producing workplace cultures that value niceness above all else. But, by building a kind culture that encourages and rewards respectful honesty, mindful inclusivity and a balanced focus on performance as well as people, you’ll not only set the stage for innovation and success, but create an authentically great place to work.


Lucy Cox is consultant at OE Cam