Is Your Culture Too Nice?

“Nice” is necessary to success. But “too nice” is holding many businesses back. Here’s how to find the line so that you never cross it.

By Marc Effron

The CEO finishes her remarks at your annual shareholders meeting and mentally braces herself for the Q&A. It’s been a particularly tough year at the company, and she knows that investors will demand clear, compelling answers.

The questions start in rapid fire: “Why was the product launch of Caribbean Corn Crunchers delayed?”

The CEO answers, “Well, we’re a nice company and didn’t want the incompetent project manager to feel bad about the delay.”

“Why is there no innovation pipeline in the company?”

The CEO responds, “The head of R&D has been here 40 years and it wouldn’t be nice to remove him from that role after everything he’s done for the company.”

“There have been financial irregularities in your accounting processes for 3 years and the Securities and Exchange Commission called your most recent financial report ‘science fiction.’”

The CEO replies, “Well, we have a nice culture and our CFO didn’t want to embarrass anyone in our accounting function by calling them out.”

Your CEO wouldn’t just be a laughingstock after that shareholders meeting; they’d likely be in handcuffs. Yet, as strange as those answers would sound coming from a CEO’s mouth, similar answers flow freely from HR leaders every day behind closed doors.

Why don’t you remove low performers? Nice culture. Why don’t you differentiate rewards? Nice culture. Why aren’t you honest with employees about their potential? Nice culture. 

These words are often said with the belief that they represent a unique element of the individual’s company, region, or culture. In the United States, we hear it as “Minnesota nice.” In Latin America, it may be explained as encouraging a productive, family-like atmosphere. Across Asia and the Middle East, it’s often described as respecting hierarchy and age.

But here’s what those who have experienced “nice” cultures don’t realize: Nice isn’t unique to your specific environment—nice is common to humans. We’re hardwired to be empathetic and social with others, especially those who we consider to be part of our clan or in-group, finds research from the University of California, Los Angeles. 

For that reason, any organization requires some level of niceness in order to succeed.

So, What Exactly Is Nice?

Let’s start by stating the obvious. It’s nice to be civil, polite, and treat other people with basic human courtesy. It’s nice to support those you work with and it’s nice to be a good teammate. As a manager, it’s nice to help your team be engaged and productive.

Where nice goes wrong is when the label is used by leaders to explain why they don’t have, or don’t force others to have, the difficult conversations and make the challenging decisions needed to improve their organization.

I addressed part of the problem in “Calculating the Optimal Length of Time to Lie to Your Employees,” which describes how we consciously lie to others at work because we’re afraid the truth would hurt their feelings or upset them. As a consequence, feelings are spared and mediocrity (or worse) flourishes in the organization.

At other times we apply our personal talent philosophy to make decisions that an organization’s talent philosophy should govern. We may believe that loyalty to the company matters more than anything else, so we don’t lay off loyal Bob even though he’s clearly an underperformer.

Alternatively, we may simply not have the courage to do our job as a manager and give an employee direct, helpful direction for how to improve her performance. Whenever we shirk our responsibility to manage in the guise of being nice, we harm our companies. We harm our employees. We harm our customers and our suppliers. When “nice” managing becomes part of your company’s culture, you …

  1. Create shared irresponsibility. No one else has given Bob tough performance messages in 20 years, so his next manager isn’t going to either. Why should a manager risk the ire of her coworkers for violating the unwritten rules about being nice?
  2. Drag down company results. When employees don’t get clear messages about improving their performance, or there aren’t any consequences when they don’t, their underperformance creates a measurable drag on the company’s productivity. It sends a clear message that individual performance doesn’t really matter.
  3. Don’t let your best talent hear praise. Nice cultures can mean that top performers and high potential leaders are never told how valuable they are to the company. The fear in a nice culture is that someone might feel bad if they find out they aren’t in the top 20 percent. An easy solution to this is to have “A Prize in Every Box.” 
  4. Hurt diversity and inclusion. A falsely nice culture is anti-diversity and anti-inclusion. Bob says he’s working on making his team more diverse, and it’s been a 10-year effort so far with no results. But hey, he’s trying, so let’s be nice and not force him to take more decisive action.

It’s Time to Redefine Nice

Let’s rethink a nice culture so that it benefits everyone in your organization as well as your external stakeholders. The new definition of nice rests on transparency and allowing adults to make smart decisions about their own careers. In addition to the behaviors described earlier, the new nice means your company will:

  1. Create and reinforce clear standards of performance. You’ll set clear goals for all employees and frequently communicate to them about their performance against those standards. The science is clear that big goals and clear feedback drive superior results, so it wouldn’t be nice to not do this.
  2. Be transparent with employees about their potential in the organization.  It’s very nice to tell someone they have the opportunity to be a valued employee for many years to come. That doesn’t have to mean that they’ll be promoted or receive an oversized bonus during their career. It’s nice to tell solid performers that they’re solid performers.
  3. Hold managers accountable to manage. You’ll publicly celebrate managers who build the quality and depth of their teams and remove managers who aren’t able or willing to manage teams effectively.
  4. Encourage everyone to achieve their maximum potential. You’ll encourage everyone to grow and develop in a way that benefits them and the organization. You won’t sub-optimize anyone’s career by allowing them to focus on their strengths.
  5. Not use nice as an excuse. You won’t allow anyone to excuse bad management or bad choices by saying it’s just part of your culture. Peers will hold managers accountable for the new nice behaviors. Executives will hold everyone accountable.

It’s not nice in any culture or company to lie, hide the truth, or allow bad behaviors to flourish. HR leaders hold a special responsibility to remove “nice culture” from their company’s lexicon and be more explicit about which behaviors will be rewarded or punished. 

A productive culture is a powerful, but difficult thing to build. Don’t allow a sloppy definition of “nice” to undercut your efforts.

Marc Effron is the publisher of TalentQ, cofounder of the Talent Management Institute, and the president of The Talent Strategy Group, which helps the world’s largest and most successful corporations create incisive talent strategies and powerful talent-building processes. He’s also the author of 8 Steps to High Performance: Focus on What You Can Change (Ignore the Rest).