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'Niceness' Can Hurt an Organization

A group of people sitting around a table in an office.

​A "culture of nice" sounds, ummm … kinda nice. But a work environment where never is heard a discouraging word can hurt an organization when employees are afraid they will be seen as combative or rocking the boat if they voice an opposing opinion or concern.

Having great relationships at work is critical and wanting colleagues to like you is important, said Stacey Engle, president of Fierce Conversations, a training company that teaches people how to have effective workplace conversations. "There is a disconnect, however, in what 'nice' entails. Our data suggests that [employees think] being nice means never raising issues or concerns, and never providing negative feedback in any case."

When employees keep their concerns to themselves, it often is because they are afraid peers and leadership will view them in a negative light, according to the results of the Seattle-based company's online survey in April of 1,144 full-time U.S. workers.

Among its findings:

  • 80 percent of employees said it's important that co-workers consider them nice because it makes it easier to get things done, they'll get more interesting work or opportunities if people like working with them, and work is more enjoyable when they get along with colleagues.
  • 63 percent have chosen not to share a concern or negative feedback at work.
  • Women are less likely to speak up in one-on-one meetings with managers, while men and entry-level employees are more likely to avoid sharing their opinions in team meetings. 
  • Senior leaders and members of the C-suite are least likely to speak up in conversations with company leaders.

Engle thinks it's important to define what it means to be nice.

"Are you being 'nice' when you don't raise issues that you have with another person … or is [it] the 'nice' thing to do [to] address that person directly—respectfully and from a place of good intentions—so that issues get resolved? We believe the latter is the right approach."

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Many of the companies that Fierce works with, Enge said, have admitted that they suffer from people being afraid to speak openly or confront behavior.

"Being nice to colleagues and others is a good thing. However, when prioritized above all else, this trait can get in the way of an organization's success," Engle noted, and can result in wasted time and revenue, such as when workers don't voice concerns about a leader's proposed project.

"If your employees were less concerned with rocking the boat, some of these concerns would have been addressed and discussed early in the process," she said. "Sure, the idea may have still been implemented, but chances are it would have been looked at differently and may have turned out to be successful with the right tweaks."

In The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness (Doubleday, 2006), Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval write that being nice does not mean everyone has to agree.

"At the end of the discussion … you just need to feel that each of you has been heard," they write, quoting a Harvard negotiation teacher. "When you listen and ask questions, you give the other person some control and show that you respect their point of view."

Creating an Environment of Trust 

Despite the credo that honesty is the best policy, "many of us believe that we'll go further in life if we can package the truth at times or even keep it under wraps" because we don't want to hurt someone's feelings or are worried about repercussions, Thaler and Koval note in their book.

However, it's important for supervisors to "create an environment where your employees are comfortable telling you that they think your brilliant creative idea is a dud or that the slightly racy joke you've been telling might offend a buttoned-down client or a fellow employee."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Organizational Communication]

In fact, how supervisors react to employee suggestions can impact whether an employee will open up in the future, according to Danielle King.

She is assistant professor of psychology at Rice University in Houston and lead author of "Voice Resilience: Fostering Future Voice After Non-Endorsement of Suggestions" in the May 2019 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

The paper is based on findings from two university-led studies and explains how leaders can use language that encourages workers to offer more ideas in the future, even if their suggestions are not implemented.

"Our results highlight the practical importance of providing sensitive explanations for why employee suggestions cannot be embraced. Specifically, it is critically important for leaders to exhibit sensitivity in their communication with employees," she said in a news release.

"It would be useful for organizations to offer training and development for leaders on how to let employees down gently while encouraging them to speak up in the future," King said.

Explaining why an employee's idea was not acted upon can encourage workers to speak up and help them understand there may be extenuating circumstances that prevent implementing potentially good ideas.

"If such explanations are delivered in a sensitive manner, this should maintain the type of leader-employee relationship that encourages employees to speak up in the future," King said.


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