The Pleasant Trap: Why Companies with Nice Work Cultures Finish Last
There is no shortage of horror stories about companies with toxic workplace culture. Businesses that allow pernicious behavior to take hold struggle with acute turnover, low morale, spotty performance, and often a lackluster bottom line. Toxicity is a blatant problem that harms organizations and their employees.
Some believe fostering a polite culture will prevent destructive workplace conduct. But ironically, anchoring culture in niceness can create a different set of problems.
When Nice Isn’t Nice
The Great Resignation brought workers’ bad work experiences to light. To preempt toxicity and be more attuned to people’s well-being, some companies reacted by instilling a culture of pleasantness. They enacted a code that required people not to ruffle feathers or step on toes. But nice cultures often have a downside. As NYU psychology professor Tessa West told CNBC:
“There has been a huge push around well-being and niceness at work, being kind, empathic and being caring — which are obviously good traits to have. But what ends up happening is, we’ve somehow pitted niceness against clear communication and confrontation, even when it’s necessary.”
West is among many experts who caution leaders not to conflate niceness with a culture that is genuinely in the best interest of employees. A healthy culture supports constructive critical feedback and discussions challenging the status quo. Being nice can be a way to avoid tough conversations that could lead to systematic improvements and employee career development.
And West notes that activating a code of niceness can actually damage a work environment:
“Ironically, the biggest way to destroy psychological safety is through a culture of niceness, because you don’t really know what anyone actually thinks.”
She also points out that niceness can also morph into a form of passive aggression, where “bad intentions are masked by smiles.”
In an article for Harvard Business Review, LeaderFactor CEO Timothy Clark outlines how the appearance of harmony and alignment can obscure latent dysfunction. He notes that leaders often initiate a nice culture to motivate their staff and be more inclusive. But the tactic often backfires, resulting in a lack of honest communication, innovation, and accountability.
He warns that a nice culture can often be “a veneer of civility that falsely signals inclusion, collaboration, and high performance.”
The Alternative To Nice
There’s another approach that leaders can take to ensure the best interest of their business and those who work there. Instead of aiming for a nice work environment, they can use kindness as the basis of their culture. Some may consider kindness and niceness synonymous, but there are key distinctions that generate different outcomes.
A Google search of definitions highlights the contrast in the terms:
Nice/nīs/adjective: pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory.
Kind/kīnd/adjective: having or showing a helpful, generous, and considerate nature.
The two words that zero in on the difference are “agreeable” and “helpful.” Being nice or agreeable is a form of conforming and possibly pleasing others for personal gain. But being kind helps to improve things and is a way of supporting others. Being nice is a surface behavior; being kind is rooted in genuine connections.
Kindness and niceness can even be in conflict. Jessica Stillman gives these examples in her article for Inc.:
“Telling a flailing employee they're flailing with the aim of helping them improve isn't very nice. But it is kind. Calling out bias in a meeting isn't nice, it's awkward. It is also kind. Being chipper can even be actively unkind if your positivity is directed toward someone who is suffering and obliges the other party to hide their true feelings in the name of niceness (this is called toxic positivity).”
How Leaders Can Cultivate Kindness
CEOs wanting to prevent toxicity from tanking their organization should cultivate a supportive environment that helps people grow and improve—not merely a shallow, pleasant atmosphere. Timothy Clark offers suggestions for leaders to create a kind culture:
- Clarify expectations and standards of performance.
- Encourage candor and challenge the status quo.
- Confront performance problems immediately.
CLARIFY EXPECTATIONS AND STANDARDS
People don’t function well with ambiguous direction. A lack of specific behavioral guidelines can lead to what Clark calls “toxic niceness” that buries problems. Leaders should identify and clearly define the conduct they expect from their employees. They should be explicit about their expectations concerning how people work and interact and make holding each other accountable part of this behavioral code.
By clarifying expectations, leaders provide a solid foundation for employees to lean on and create a positive framework for constructive feedback.
ENCOURAGE CANDOR & CHALLENGE STATUS QUO
Leaders can’t expect others to speak up and propose improvements if they don’t demonstrate that it’s safe to explore change. They can overcome people’s reluctance to share their concerns in several ways:
- Establishing a blame-free environment where people aren’t punished for voicing their opinions and are instead applauded for bringing ideas to the table.
- Protecting and thanking people who have the courage to speak up to move things forward.
- Encouraging healthy debate as a means to develop better solutions.
- Not letting their ego get in the way of progress. A leader who demonstrates humility and vulnerability gives employees the courage to question “the way we’ve always done things.”
Leaders who don’t address poor conduct condone it. And when they hesitate to react, they show a lack of conviction. Leaders should consistently uphold standards, and if they have successfully outlined the behaviors they expect from employees, they have an ideal coaching playbook. Part of maintaining a culture of kindness is respectfully holding people accountable and helping them improve and grow.
Striking a Balance
Organizational psychologist and the University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant pronounced mediocracy, aka a focus on niceness, one of the four deadly sins of company culture on his Worklife podcast. He further defined a nice culture as one where relationships are valued more than results, there is a lack of accountability, and there is more concern about everyone getting along regardless of performance.
But an absence of niceness is reflected in Grant’s other deadly sins:
- Toxicity, where results are prized over relationships
- Bureaucracy, where stringent red tape and rules prevent innovation
- Anarchy, where an absence of rules, strategy, and structure creates chaos
Niceness isn’t the fundamental problem—it’s not that people shouldn’t strive to be nice when appropriate. And it’s admirable for leaders to aim for harmony. But taken too far, niceness can undermine a company’s potential for success and the overall well-being of its employees. The goal is to strike a balance.
The author of a recent Applauz blog provided advice about achieving this kind of middle ground:
“[Leaders should strive to] hold people accountable but doing it respectfully. Or setting high standards for a team while remaining flexible, realistic, and not micromanaging.”
She notes that this balanced environment contrasts sharply with a nice culture, where work feels aimless and stagnant. And it also doesn’t create a toxic atmosphere where people are overwhelmed and tense. Building this balance allows leaders to channel and manage the constructive tension necessary for their organizations to grow and thrive.