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Combatting Cultures Of “Nice”

Written by: Denise Blanc, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Denise Blanc

What could possibly be the problem in working for an organization where everyone is just so nice? Isn’t being nice a good thing?

Group of happy business people working together in a creative office.

The problem becomes when harmony and false positivity are encouraged at all costs, and in such a way, that negative emotions must be suppressed or denied.

True positivity is grounded in the acknowledgement that even though things might look bad now, they can improve. False positivity shows up as denial, “let’s just look on the bright side.”

Effects of false positivity in organizations:

  • Groupthink in meetings, where only in the “meeting after the meeting” will people share what they really think.

  • Cultures of denial are created, because there is no space to address honest emotions, or disagreements. True feelings go underground resulting in increased stress and burn-out.

  • People become less inclined to take creative risks.

  • People avoid hard conversations, problems go unresolved, hampering personal growth or any real improvement.

My first experience working for a culture of “nice” was with a large healthcare system that had a powerful and inspiring mission statement. The mission drove everything, and although it involved critically important work in the community, underlying problems of, “behind the back” gossip, and egregious behavior both from leaders and amongst staff, went largely unaddressed. Leadership meetings focused on our values and the good work being done. I never remember conversations that encouraged people to air what was simmering under the surface. Only after multiple years of low employee engagement scores, concerns over patient safety, and HR complaints were the issues finally taken seriously.

Working in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous)

The acronym VUCA describes organizations where this is constant change and unpredictability. This environment requires leaders to pivot quickly, address underlying problems, and be able to hold hard conversations when needed. In a culture of “nice” where negative emotions are dismissed or invalidated this just doesn’t happen.

As our world becomes ever more turbulent, anger, anxiety, and stress also increases. If leaders put on their blinders, ignore, or deny troubling concerns, they will only succeed in breeding cultures of distrust and where bad behavior thrives.

I have gotten in the habit of asking my clients to rate themselves on a scale of 1-5 regarding their comfort level with conflict. (A score of “5” means they can take the heat and stand in the fire, whereas a score of “1” means they will try to avoid conflict at any cost.)

Mostly, people rate themselves somewhere in the middle. It seems that across-the-board people prefer to avoid conflict whenever they can.

Three reasons leaders cite for avoiding:

  • Confronting the situation could escalate the problem.

  • I don’t know how to broach the topic.

  • Keeps me safe by avoiding it – confronting issue might jeopardize my relationship.

As uncomfortable as conflict may feel – conflict is inevitable. People will always have different ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. No matter how hard you try clashes and misunderstandings are unavoidable. Developing the curiosity, courage, and skills to work with conflict provides room for real change.

It is important to mention that conflict shows up on a continuum. On one end, we see productive conflict, which encourages people to be better people and is a catalyst for growth. On the other end, it can become destructive, with name-calling, maybe even violence and this may require a different intervention. Amanda Ripley’s book, High Conflict, provides powerful tools on how to work with both.

Where constructive conflict is concerned, leaders have an opportunity to help people with different backgrounds, personalities, and opinions work together – but this requires both the will and the skills to do so. This excellent article from Forbes magazine shares how leaders become more effective when they don’t shy away from conflict.

I’ve discovered that an important step, especially for those who are Avoiders, is to help them to explore their challenges in a way that invites curiosity and discovery. I encourage them to use the metaphor of the river to talk about their relationship challenges and conflicts. Most people have positive associations with rivers whereas the word “conflict” can carry baggage. First, I share the definitions:

  • Rapids - where a conversation become turbulent, and we hit resistance. (Most people know what this feels like!)

  • Undercurrents - sensing something under the surface that is not being said.

  • Eddies - biases, judgements, or stories we hold about another person that keep us stuck.

Here’s how it sounds:

  • “How do you react when you hit the rapids with someone?” (When you hit resistance)

  • Or walking into a meeting you say, “I notice undercurrents of tension.” Does anyone else feel it? What are we not talking about but need to be?”

  • Or admitting to yourself that you have a “story” bias, or judgment that interferes with a relationship which could benefit from deeper exploration.

My coaching client, Marco was a brilliant analytic thinker, but struggling in his new role as a senior leader. His division in a big pharma, was going through massive changes in the way they were operating. He was brought on to lead this effort. Marco described “hitting the rapids” with one team member, who was vocally resistant to the changes. Marco’s preferred style was to avoid conflict whenever possible. He knew that needed to change.

He was also aware of undercurrents of tension in his weekly staff meetings There was noticeable lack of engagement, with only a few doing all the talking. He sensed his team’s frustration but was concerned about opening Pandora’s box. He feared that he was in danger of losing some of his best talent if things didn’t change.

When we talked about eddies, he identified a “story” that was keeping him stuck. He thought he needed to hold deference for the chain of command, so rarely pushed back when his boss was present. Everyone was encouraging him to step up more – including his boss!

Marco’s style of avoiding conflict had not been working. He needed to learn how to get comfortable navigating the rapids, addressing the under-currents, and interrogating his “stories” or eddies.

Using the language of the river, allowed Marco a way to explore his issues more creatively.

To his credit, he developed the courage to ask and then listen to his team’s concerns. He discovered they needed space to air their frustrations, they needed him to become a staunch advocate for their department, and they wanted him to push back with senior leadership, at times.

Combatting “culture of nice”

Marco began to:

  • Create room on the agenda for dialogue, encouraging open discussions about feelings (positive and negative.)

  • Actively began to enlist team member’s ideas for creative changes.

  • Create a vibrant feedback loop, encouraging ongoing and candid feedback up, down, and across department. He cultivated an environment where feedback was seen as an opportunity for learning and not as a personal attack.

His meetings became more honest, engaged – also more heated. A soft-spoken and compassionate leader, Marco also found the courage and passion he needed to challenge the status quo.

I recently came across a new acronym:

WISH (What is silenced here?)

We combat cultures of “nice” when we honestly vocalize our thoughts and feelings. We learn to become candid and compassionate. They are not mutually exclusive!

Follow me on LinkedIn, YouTube and visit my website for more info!

Read more from Denise!

Denise Blanc Brainz Magazine

Denise Blanc, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Denise Blanc, MA, ACC is a Certified Emotional Intelligence Coach, Mediator, and Senior Organization Development Consultant. An expert in communication, she coaches, speaks, teaches, and writes at the intersection of Emotional Intelligence, Conflict Transformation, and Mindfulness. Her noble goal is to inspire candor, courage, and compassionate communication to create a more just and caring world.

Denise is the founder of River Logic Partners, a leadership coaching and consulting firm. She has been the chief architect of numerous leadership academies over her career, winning multiple awards for her leadership design, e.g.The International Spirit a Work Award, "Best Practices for Creating New Leaders." She has over two decades as a student and teacher of mindfulness, and currently teaches programs for Shambhala, a global Buddhist organization, in areas of social justice and race.

Denise is the author of RiverLogic: Tools to Transform Resistance and Create Flow in all of our Relationships.

Whenever possible, Denise is hiking the hills and swimming in natural bodies of water around the world.


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