The cost of niceness 

With the right leadership, kindness will overcome niceness

On the surface, the word “nice” is seen as a positive, even in business. But what does it mean to have a “nice” workplace culture?

I often hear clients describe their corporate culture as 'nice'. When I ask them to elaborate, I hear responses like: “It is friendly,” or “We rarely have conflict.”

Then the skeletons come out of the closet: “We’re nice, but a little passive-aggressive at times.” In these sorts of cultures, workers don’t necessarily want to provide honest feedback, and there tends to be little push back when people don't agree, for fear of hurting relationships.

Read more: Build a kind culture (not a nice one)

While no workplace culture should be mean, a nice one emphasises friendliness and politeness in a way that results in the avoidance of offending people. Managers, peers and others feel like they’re walking on eggshells, and it can lead to adverse psychological consequences. This creates an environment where truth-telling causes confusion, ambiguity, and anxiety.

Imagine that someone gives you feedback but you doubt the genuineness of their feedback because speaking up is not typical in a nice culture, and people rarely want to offend you. Imagine explicitly asking for feedback but getting a sense that you’re not getting the whole truth. This can create as much anxiety as criticism, if not more. Plus, the lack of honest feedback gets in the way of employees reaching their potential and the employer moving forward.

You’ve seen it before: people not getting to the point, even if the point is the important bit. Meetings then prioritise on-the-surface discussion topics while the real issues discussed through back channels. These back channels do nothing to unite the broader workplace because people aren’t on the same page.

When communication breaks down during official meetings, CEOs and other leaders are burdened with the need to speak hard truths and make difficult decisions. However, a nice workplace culture can breed less courageous leadership, which favours conflict avoidance and undermines necessary decision-making. This lets people off the hook, and can also jeopardise innovation. 

An aversion to risk-taking and experimenting does nothing for creativity, the ability to streamline processes, and other breakthroughs. More than 85% of innovation practitioners reported that fear often, or always, holds back innovation. Creativity suffers too.

What does that mean for recruitment and retention? Creative people are unlikely to stay if your workplace culture does not incentivise and reward creativity. Over time, niceness creates organisational inertia: you get stuck.

Read more: Why kindness should be fundamental for leadership

So how do you solve the niceness problem? First, recognise its existence. Identify the signs of risk-aversion. You can see 'playing it safe' when you look for it.

Companies are better served focusing on kindness. Whereas niceness refers to surface manners and decent behaviours, kindness is all about caring, being sincere and genuinely wanting the best for all team members. Kind leaders are known for honest candour that turns into constructive criticism and clear feedback on what is going right, so you get more of it. Kind leaders are pointed, but positive.

Kind leaders are prepared to offer valuable feedback because they expect employees to seek out feedback in the first place. Workers in these environments know that feedback does not need to trigger fear or anxiety; rather, it is a way to show you care, inspiring people to be even better.

Research has shown that leading with kindness allows innovation to flourish. ‘Kind’ companies five times more likely to be considered innovative, too.

Read more: The human workplace is the new work paradigm

With the right leadership, kindness will overcome niceness. The best leaders role model kind mindsets and behaviours, which translate to the rest of the workforce. This is especially evident in communication: kind leaders seeking input from all levels, encouraging people to speak freely, and urging them to avoid assumptions. It always starts at the top.

'Nice' companies finish last. Kind ones finish first.

By Jayne Jenkins, founder and CEO of Churchill Leadership Group.