Why Being Nice is Such a Double – Edged Sword
It’s human to want to be liked at work.. But it can come with a high cost. Prioritising niceness often means dialling-down on being honest or critical, and sometimes that isn’t the best strategy for your career, or your organisation.
If you are concerned with “being nice”, you’re not alone. In a study of 1,000 full-time employees across the U.S., 63% of respondents said they’ve chosen not to share a concern or negative feedback at work because they didn’t want to seem combative, uncooperative, or be viewed in a negative light.
Respondents said it’s important to be considered nice by their co-workers for these top three reasons:
They find work is more enjoyable when they get along with their colleagues.
It makes it easier to get things done.
They will get more interesting work/more opportunities if people like working with them.
Why it’s seductive, (and dangerous) to be agreeable
It’s human nature to be agreeable – it seems like a natural way to build a sense of connection. The willingness to be “part of the team” has been rewarded through our evolution as a species. We have evolved as a fangless, clawless creatures, who cannot outrun many of our predators or prey, and yet we find ourselves at the pinnacle of the food chain.
Our capacity to collaborate in groups has meant that humans have often been required to be wired for connection, and willing to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good. From the time we’re young, we’re encouraged to be “nice and polite”, which often means we’re trained to be ineffective in conversations. The saying, ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ can get in the way if you don’t have communication skills to engage in important conversations when the challenges or stakes are higher.
Research by neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman shows our brains are particularly sensitive to what he calls “social pain”, (e.g. heartbreak, exclusion, or rejection). His research also1 demonstrates a surprising truth: our brain experiences social pain in the same way that our bodies experience physical pain. To illustrate the point, Lieberman shows that if someone takes a common pain killers such as Tylenol before being exposed to social pain, they feel it less.
The net effect of this is that often “being nice” to fit in socially could mean we don’t ask questions, or disagree when we believe something is wrong. “Going along to get along” might make us feel better in the short term, but the cost is that it often sees us being swept along in the popular tide. In some notable cases this popular tide washed up for some organisations into the Banking Royal Commission. If we’re fearful or don’t have the necessary skills, we tiptoe around issues. To grow as a leader, this needs to shift.
Niceness comes with a cost
This desire to be agreeable or “nice” can eventually lead to personal unhappiness in several instances. For example, a leader may avoid confronting an employee on their lack of delivery, or their disruptive behaviour, either ignoring it or pushing it off on the HR department.
The desire to be agreeable can sap us of our courage to say hard things, to experiment, to surface conflict. But the disagreement is still there. And it leaks out in sometime imperceptible, yet destructive ways, such as the non-compliance with decisions the group has made. In the pre-meetings to get people on-board with me before the real meetings, or in the meetings after the meetings we have when we say all the things we wanted to but didn’t.
This can be extremely time-consuming, and leaves employees guessing, doubting themselves, and using up energy that would better be used in getting the real work done. This breeds far more doubt and toxicity than taking a deep breath and saying, ‘Look, John, this is what I’ve noticed. Talk with me more about this.’
Creating a culture of communication
Honest conversations aren’t easy, but companies can create a culture in which they are the norm.
To create a culture of open communication, leaders have to model the behaviour they want to see – and be open to perspectives that are different to their own. US leadership consultant Catherine Fitzgerald uses a technique which she calls, “confront only to deepen”. In this approach, the central question a leader should ask is, “Can this conflict serve to deepen this relationship?” In other words, through listening and understanding, is it possible to find a better solution that neither party has considered before.
When individuals are able to confront issues together in an open and constructive way, most often the result is a deeper more trusting relationship, not a fractured one.
In other words, we need to reframe what “nice” really means. Is it nice that we beat around a topic, guess, or simply get swept along in what looks like it is “the safe thing”? Or do you believe that you are part of the team because you have some value to contribute? Remember, it really is possible that you can be respectful and demonstrate good intentions, whilst at the same time challenging your manager. Often, our greatest risk and pain comes from when we don’t engage at all.