Is Your Nice Corporate Culture Too Nice?

Is Your Nice Corporate Culture Too Nice?
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Can a Corporate Culture Be Too Nice?
At a recent HR Strategy Retreat, the Chief People Officer asked her team, “Is our corporate culture too nice to execute our growth strategy?”  She was rightfully concerned that the nice corporate culture would not be able to handle the level of accountability and performance transparency required to increase performance at scale.

While most prefer to work in a culture where employees treat one another with mutual respect, is respecting one another the same as being nice to one another?

Certainly, treating your colleagues politely is a good thing but can you and your workplace culture take “niceness” too far?

The Downside of Being Too Nice at Work
The downside of being too nice at work is that you can sacrifice honest communication, candid feedback, intellectual courage, and accountability. The risk is highest for companies going through major organizational change, facing marketplace disruption, and having a socially beneficial mission like educational institutions, non-profits, and the like; their benevolent purpose is apt to promote an overly benevolent culture.

Why Would an Organization Promote Niceness?
Whether by design or by default, the reasons an organization would seek a “nice” culture are similar to the reasons people seek niceness in social relationships. Here are five of the most common reasons for nice corporate cultures:

  • To avoid conflict and difficult conversations
  • To discourage dissent
  • To defer to the person in charge
  • To make people feel cared for
  • To motivate performance in the absence of clear goals and accountabilities

Why Should an Organization Seek Kindness rather than Niceness?
Honesty is congruent with kindness but not with niceness. The truth may hurt, but it is ultimately kind as it allows people and employees to learn and grow rather than wallow in honey-flavored mis-truths. Here are some of the negative consequences of a nice corporate culture.

When taken to far, “too nice” of a corporate culture can:

  • Stifle Innovation
    Corporate cultures that are too nice stifle the kind of divergent thinking, urgency, and sharing of new ideas that require speaking boldly, taking appropriate risks, and shifting of the status quo.
  • Disengage Top Talent
    “A” players seek to make meaningful contributions. If their ideas are suppressed by the too-nice culture that is averse to the new and different, top talent will disengage and leave for a culture that appreciates their desire to make an impact.
  • Slow Decision-Making
    When teams value getting along over constructive debate and objective decision-making, decisions typically take longer, miss the mark, create frustration, and decrease trust in leadership.
  • Decrease Performance and Increase Politics
    When honest feedback and constructive debate is culturally frowned upon, the need for consensus and conformity outweigh the pressure to perform.   This dynamic can open the window for increased unwanted politics at work and stifle performance and disengage employees ? especially for high performers.

What Can You Do?
A too-nice culture is not irretrievable. There are simple steps you as a leader can take to rescue your culture and make it kind but honest:

  1. Show that You Value Candor
    Encourage opposing viewpoints and devil’s advocate thinking. Then support, protect, and reward those who put innovative ideas and opinions on the table.
  2. Clarify Performance Expectations
    Strategic ambiguity can leave room for unhealthy cultures to grow.  Make sure your team understands what you expect of them in terms of results and behaviors.  Then make sure that your performance management, reward, and recognition systems are 100% aligned with what matters most.
  3. Model the Desired Behavior
    Showing how you expect the team to behave by walking the talk is a powerful game changer. As a leader, you become the model and standard to follow.
  4. Hold Employees Accountable
    Any cultural change will happen only when the desired behaviors are appreciated, and the negative (and passive aggressive) behaviors have consequences. Make sure leaders are open to feedback and that they are giving frequent and constructive feedback to their teams.

The Bottom Line
Your strategy must go through your people and your culture to be successfully implemented.  If your culture is misaligned or too nice for challenges that you face, your business and your people will not grow and thrive. Have you assessed your corporate culture lately to see if how work gets done and how people behave is putting your people and business ambitions at risk?

To learn more about optimizing your company culture, download  The 3 Levels of Culture that Leaders Must Get Right

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