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Is Your Workplace Too Nice? This is How to Find Out

How to Train Employees to Thrive

Whether you’re from the American Midwest, or you know someone from the region, you’ve most likely at some point or another had a conversation about the idea of, “Midwest Nice.”

My parents met at Cleveland State University. My mom grew up smack dab in the middle of Cleveland, while my dad grew up in the burbs one-hour east. In short, most of my gene pool lives in Ohio. And because I have never lived in Ohio, I’m a rare species in the Mason/Engle clan.

This is because I get to look from the outside in, and I’ve developed a keen sense of sniffing out “Midwest Nice” pretty quickly. 

It tends to look like the following: 

  • Always keeping a smile on your face...especially when you disagree with something. 
  • Sweeping thoughts and conversation under the rug very quickly when a topic is brought up you don’t want to talk about.
  • Being a firm believer that, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
  • When a controversial statement is made, responding with “well, be nice.” 
  • Stating your opinion when promoted, but immediately following it up with, “but we can do whatever you want.”

Yep, tell-tale signs of Midwest Nice.

The important thing to note here is that Midwest Nice isn’t the only form of “nice” that shows up throughout the world (and in the workplace) — and they’ve got their own tell-tale signs too. 

Our organization, Fierce Conversations, has this special ability to sniff out cultures of nice as well, as these cultures tend to sneak their way into problems our clients come to us to resolve and they don’t even realize it. 

As I wrote in the piece, The Dark Side of Niceness: How Honesty is Taking a Backseat in the Workplace, the results of our recent research on the impact niceness has on the workplace confirmed how we would define cultures that are overly nice.

Nearly 63 percent of employees chose not to share a concern or negative feedback at work because they were fearful of being seen as combative and then kept their concerns and feedback to themselves.

Respondents said it’s important to be considered nice because:  

  1. They find work is more enjoyable when they get along with their colleagues.  
  2. It makes it easier to get things done.  
  3. They will get more interesting work/more opportunities if people like working with them.

We all want the above things: enjoyable, easier, and more interesting work – sign me up, please!

Here’s what often gets overlooked: The three reasons above can happen while still sharing concerns and feedback with colleagues – in a productive and relationship-enriching way. 

What’s So Bad About Being “Nice”?

You should not keep those to yourself. So, why is it so bad to keep concerns and comments to yourself?

It is not healthy. When you keep negative thoughts or secrets to yourself, there is scientific evidence that stress hormones, such as cortisol, increase, and your health is affected.

"Sleep may be disturbed, which could lead to emotional mood swings and a propensity to be ill-tempered or lose your cool," Allen Towfigh, MD, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Cornell Medical Center, recently told Forbes. 

"You may also have difficulty with memory and learning. And the excess release of cortisol will cause a host of other ailments, including possible increase or loss of appetite and disruption of metabolism," he said.

If it goes even further to keep a secret, Art Markman shares, “The stress caused by secrets arises because people think about the information they are keeping secret often — even when they are not around the person they are hiding the information from. These thoughts cause stress and make people feel as though they are not acting authentically.

It creates a dump truck effect. During a Fierce training about confrontation, we recount a personal story about a woman, Sara, who shares that her boss bothers her over and over and over again. 

Then, one Wednesday afternoon, her boss does one small thing, and Sara unloads the entire dump truck of her frustrations. Months of examples and all the emotions that go along with them. 

I shouldn’t have to say this: That’s not effective.

It is not authentic. We can all sniff fake from a mile away. When someone is not disclosing something to you, you sense it. Misalignment with personal values is often cited as a big reason for career change and shifts. 

If you are a leader, you want your organization, team, and employees to be healthy, to address issues as they come, and to be authentic and dedicated. Ultimately, these results in top and bottom line health, productivity, and happiness.

Signs of a “Culture of Nice”

So, how do you know when you are part of a “Culture of Nice”?

The top signs we’ve seen from Fierce clients are:

  1. Conversations, negative or positive, are absent. 
  2. You can’t remember the last time someone at your workplace said something that was hard for you to hear. 
  3. Mistakes are handled in inconsistent ways or just not handled at all. 
  4. Relationships in the organization are built in various ways that may not be conducive to being authentic and real with one another. 
  5. Expectations are shifted or changed based on various factors, rather than grounded in reality and moving the business forward. 

Another major way leaders can determine if their organization is fostering a “Culture of Nice” is by understanding the ways this niceness culture shows up. 

Below, you can find the most common cultures of nice and what they tend to look like at organizations:

Three Types of “Cultures of Nice

1. Only Smiles Can Live Here.

A culture where there is legislated optimism. The expectation is that each employee keeps the atmosphere positive, and therefore, employees associate bringing up concerns or addressing issues head-on as negative and going against the status quo.Ways to tell: 

  • Most meetings including head nods and smiles. 
  • It’s frowned upon to bring a concern to an individual in either a group or individual setting. 
  • When someone makes a mistake, it is often greeted with positive reinforcement or not at all – instead of accountability.
  • Relationships are built on others supporting one another and reinforcing how everyone is doing the best they can – often at the cost of not challenging one another.

2. Respect with a Capital R AKA “Don’t Question Me.”

A culture where employees associate respect with agreeing with each other on the surface. This culture of nice does not encourage sharing concerns with individuals who may potentially have shortsighted or disconnected ideas or strategies because it is considered disrespectful to do so. Ways to tell:

  • It’s not encouraged to have competing views at meetings, and rather, it’s expected to support the meeting leaders.
  • Before meetings, other meetings occur to make sure that certain people will be supporting and respecting what is discussed during the meeting.
  • Autonomy in decision-making is important, however, decisions are often made by a small few. 
  • Relationships are built on who you know and how much you support the brilliance of the people with authority and decision-making power. 

3. Passive-Aggressive Party of Many 

A culture where an undercurrent exists. Everything seems positive on the surface, however, there are tensions that show through. On the outside, the culture seems to be positive, however, when you dig deeper, you realize the “audio” doesn’t match the “video.”Ways to tell:

  • Meetings often have one or two people active in the conversations, while the others are disengaged – checking their phones and emails or staring into outer space. 
  • People share positive experiences and seem happy, however, engagement scores or other metrics share a different story.
  • Relationships are built on coalitions and agreements on what, who, and how to support certain people and items over others. Cliques live here. 

Now, I want to take a second to highlight that I’m not saying niceness is a bad thing in the workplace because it absolutely is not.

That said, we must reframe what nice is at the office. It’s not about beating around a topic. It is not about pandering to a few. It is not about keeping your feelings and thoughts to yourself and potentially lashing out after. It is not about faking a smile out of fear of retaliation.

I have stepped into each of these cultures while doing our Fierce work. I have stepped into these cultures while stepping into family’s and friends’ homes as well. 

In order to combat “nice” cultures, it takes time. This does not change overnight. However, once you start paying attention to the signs, you know where the work needs to take place.   

I want to hear from you. Do you believe you are part of a “Culture of Nice”? Let us know by clicking on the chat icon to the right. I’m looking forward to hearing your story.

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