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There is a condition afflicting organisations that often goes undiagnosed because it is perceived as benign. The truth, it is corrosive.I call it the “disease of nice.”
To those of you more accustomed to working in offices where people are more often thrusting daggers than smiles, the very mention of too much niceness might seem laughable. A bad joke. It’s not. When I say “niceness,” I don’t mean politeness. Niceness in an organizational setting is the avoidance of conflict.
Note I said “avoidance,” not absence.
Dag Hammarskjold, one-time head of the United Nations, got to the heart of why niceness is a problem when he said, “It is easy to be nice, even to an enemy — from lack of character.” In other words, those who act nice lack backbone; they are either pretending not to care or really don’t care about the issues or worse the organisation for which they work. Both are unhealthy.
While non-confrontation may seem more desirable – and it is on an interpersonal level – when it becomes part of the culture, it can wreak havoc. Case in point is General Motors. For a generation at least, its senior management avoided addressing the key problems facing the company – high fixed costs in manufacturing and a bloated distribution system (too many brands for too few customers). Both issues would have involved tackling labour costs and dealer relations; failure to address either sank the company into bankruptcy.
How do you know if your company has fallen into the too-much-niceness syndrome? Here are some tip offs.
People say, “Oh wonderful.” A lot. We all like to get a pat on the back but when affirmation is constant, then you know it is nothing more than “happy talk.” Utterly meaningless.
In meetings, people say, “Hmmm.” That means the other person does not really like what you have to say or do, but is reluctant to voice his doubts or opposition.
“Yeah, OK,” is common feedback. We all want to hear that people like our work. But when all you get is fine, fine, fine, then it means that no one is really thinking about what you have to say.
Colleagues frequently say, “No matter!” This may be the worst symptom of all – apathy. When employees cease to care, then the team is in trouble. They are tuned out and are only along for the ride until they can find something better to do.
Conflict has a positive role to play in every company. Very often it is referred to as “creative tension,” that is the jostling over issues that are vital to the future of the organisation. Once upon a time an executive said that if you have two direct reports who always agree with you, you do not need both of them. While not wholly true, the adage underscores the point that bosses may be served best when their subordinates feel they can debate the issues with them.
Failure to address conflicts creates a non-confrontational culture that is complacent. And in today’s world complacency is a recipe for slow decay. organisations thrive when its members feel they can voice their ideas even when those suggestions may be contrary to the way others think. You don’t want employees throwing stones, but you do want them to have a pebble or two they can hurl when the status quo needs breaking.
Have you ever worked in an organisation with too much “niceness”? Would you add any other red flags to my list?