Updated: Jun 20, 2019
I was recently invited to speak at a leadership retreat. The organization is based in a region of the country that is known for many things. They have great restaurants, excellent schools, and beautiful rolling countryside. They are also known for being very, very, nice.
A place renown for niceness is wonderful if you’re a tourist. It’s probably a great place to raise a family. It might even be a pleasant place to go to the DMV.
However, if you’re trying to introduce innovation and culture-change in an organization full of staff accustomed to being “nice” as a core part of their identity, this can actually be a problem.
At the retreat, we were covering There’s No Nice Way to Poke Someone in the Eye: Leading Conflict Principle 2 and someone said:
“John, I get it and I agree. Dancing around hard conversations for fear of hurting someone’s feelings doesn’t help anyone. But I’m still struggling with how to put this into action with my staff. Everyone in my unit places such a premium on “being nice”. I’m afraid that being more upfront and transparent will be portrayed as meanness. We do shy away from tensions and tend to avoid conflict, but it is a pleasant place to work most of the time. What should I do?”
Excellent question. Here’s one way to answer it.
Stop focusing on being nice. Instead, insist on practicing kindness.
Niceness is the desire to produce a subjective feeling of emotional pleasure in others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, the desire to be seen as nice has more to do with our own needs than the needs of those around us.
It feels good to be nice. It’s a positive experience that rewards us with dopamine and decreased relational risk. However, compulsive niceness can also be deeply selfish.
Here’s the contrast.
Kindness is objectively oriented toward what is most likely to help and be of assistance to the person in front of us. True kindness is independent of the feelings it might produce in us or the other person.
Niceness is about what people want. Kindness is about what people need.
As a leader, giving people what they want, what they’re asking for, or telling them what they want to hear will indeed produce pleasure in the relationship. It might also be incredibly unkind.
There’s nothing kind about withholding feedback that might be the key to someone’s growth. It’s not kind to confirm others in behavior or thinking that is likely to harm them personally or professionally.
Genuine kindness requires risk and often, confrontation. It requires leaders who are willing to set aside the self-gratifying desire to be seen as nice and occasionally sacrifice relational peace, in order to seek a higher good in the people they serve.
Also, leaders who are habitually insist on being the “nice-one” typically leave a lot of interpersonal heavy lifting for others to do, either now or in the future. That tough conversation avoided today will become someone else’s crisis tomorrow.