I have spent time with people at work who are really, really nice. Lots of smiling, appreciative nodding, complimenting of ideas and presentations. Tea gets poured, cookies are unwrapped and slid around the table, the weather gets discussed. Work gets done as well, of course, and projects move ahead and goals are met about as well as they might. The managers are complimentary, the subordinates ducking their heads as though abashed at the praise. It sure is nice to see and makes for very pleasant work environments. In some cases, it also makes for the wholesale destruction of employees. In those groups and organizations in which unrelenting niceness is the norm, it is what is not said that ultimately, inevitably, proves dangerous for members. Flowing beneath the niceness is a hidden reservoir of feedback, criticism, and reactions that remains publicly unacknowledged. There are members who, unbeknownst to them, are dying of thirst, desperate for that which the reservoir contains. Too often, they perish, failing miserably at their jobs, just out of reach of that which might have saved them.
For the most part, this process remains unacknowledged. Indeed, the process remains outside the conscious awareness of its participants. All that people are aware of is the story that they tell themselves to make sense of their behavior. The story begins with how nice it is to be nice, how nice it is to work with others who are nice, and how nice it is not be with those others who are not so nice. This is the shared story that people tell themselves and others when they are lucky enough to all be so nice together. The story is buttressed by the whispers about other places in which the people aren’t so nice to one another, are casually cruel to one another, telling others exactly what they think without regard to hours put in, good intentions, or feelings. These whispers let the nice ones feel quietly superior and confirmed in the rightness of their niceness.
Niceness is further held in place by the cover stories that people tell themselves about their withholding of candid feedback and criticism of others. These cover stories invariably revolve around the theme of protecting others from being hurt. A subordinate messes up on an important presentation; her boss, wanting to protect her from being hurt by the truth that she had prepared poorly, tells her that the company just wasn’t ready for the project just yet. A team member is sloppy about the details of a project; his colleague just fixes the problems without telling him, not wanting to hurt the feelings of the other member by telling him that he is developing a reputation for low-quality work. In such cases, the boss and the colleague believe themselves to be sparing the feelings of others. They truly believe that they are being nice.
These are cover stories. They hide a darker truth. In fact, the boss and the colleague are protecting themselves, not the others. They are protecting themselves from having the difficult conversations that would ensue if they stopped being nice and started being helpful. And the conversations would be difficult. The boss would have to sit with the subordinate as she felt badly, grew defensive, or grew anxious about her future. He would have to acknowledge his own culpability in not having helped her prepare more effectively. The team member would have to sit with his colleague as he argued, grew upset, threatened to quit the team, or asked for more help. He too would have to acknowledge his own failure in not telling his colleague earlier, when the sloppiness first occurred, before the reputational damage was done. In both instances, the seeming niceness was, in fact, a dodge, as people protected themselves from engaging in interactions that would likely have proven unpleasant. Their willingness to do so—and avoid the truth of their doing so—comes at a price that others unwittingly pay.
So what’s the fix? It is not simply a matter of always telling the truth, as delightfully freeing as that might be. There are political realities that make that particular course of action tricky. Rather, it is a matter of understanding the nature of what it means to respect others. People who are pathologically nice look for cues that enable them to respect others’ privacy and their own rights to do what they will. There is truth to this, of course. Yet too often this means leaving people without the feedback that will help them understand the consequences of their actions. Once they have that understanding, they ought to respectfully be left to make their own choices. Truly respecting others means providing them with that understanding—rather than assume that they are too fragile, incompetent, or dim to take in useful feedback that is delivered respectfully.
The next time that you find yourself remaining silent, trying to be nice, when someone else is struggling in ways of which they may be unaware, perform a thought experiment. Ask yourself: If I were that person, would I want to know something that would help me here?