Getting the Culture of Management Right

When does ‘niceness’ within a business become a problem as a management culture? An interesting question. Of course, it’s of value to get some light heartedness and fun in the work environment but it can go too far.

In some situations, the ‘niceness’ is a cover for a lack of honesty, innovation and accountability and things just roll along in the same way. It starts of course with all of the right intentions. Businesses want to build collaboration amongst their people – benevolence in a culture helps in this goal but then benevolence can spill over into too much ‘niceness’.

As a Reflection of Their Own Desire to be Liked: Leaders often avoid conflict and stigmatise dissent. They would rather be nice than offend, misbelieving that those are the only two choices.

To Replace Genuine Inclusion: Some companies see being nice as a substitute for inclusion. They believe that to be nice is to be humane.

To Show Exaggerated Deference to the Chain of Command: In fear-based businesses, niceness keeps you safe. The logic is that if you don’t stir the ire of those in power, you have a measure of job security.

To Motivate People Instead of Holding them Accountable: Being a warm leader creates an element of influence, but you must still have accountability. You don’t want a business where everyone hugs each other but doesn’t deliver on commitments. This is a toxic culture and one to avoid.

Inertia leading to Crisis: Sometimes inertia becomes so strong in a nice culture that the organisation loses its ability to act proactively. People wait until a problem becomes too big to ignore. Nice companies are notorious for putting low performers in corners rather than directly addressing their performance and dealing with the real problem. Nice cultures tend to nurture the false view that you can either be nice or you can hold people accountable, but you cannot do both – you can!

Strangling Innovation: Innovation disrupts the comfortable status quo, but it is the lifeblood of growth. Innovation is also a social process that requires divergent thinking and courageous conversations. Niceness can suppress this process, creating an intellectual muzzle that can turn teams of exceptionally talented people into groups that don’t function.

A Talent ‘Churn’: Good, talented people want to make a meaningful contribution. The best talent wants a healthy culture in which they can be rewarded for challenging the status quo. They want to be challenged when they challenge the status quo and get a straight answer. Nice cultures tend to struggle in giving straight opposing answers which causes frustration amongst the best. The best people want to provoke the system and force a reaction. In a nice but toxic culture management tends to humour their people and then nothing ever happens.

Slow Decision Making: In a nice culture, there’s pressure to get along. Honesty isn’t tolerated much. This makes the necessary discussion and analysis for decision making shallow and slow. You either get an ‘echo chamber’ in which the consensus of thought gives you a bad decision, or you conduct what seem to be endless rounds of discussion in pursuit of consensus. Eventually, this can lead to chronic indecisiveness.

Learned Helplessness: An invisible norm of niceness can induce conformity, passivity, and a feeling of helplessness amongst employees that just lowers the bar of performance. We have worked with many businesses where employees complain about a brand of politeness from management that actually destroys morale and extinguishes initiative. Niceness becomes a strait jacket that puts change and adaptability at serious risk. Then, instead of challenging the environment in hopes of improving the situation, people are throwing their hands up, and just keeping quiet.

There are several strategies you can employ to avoid the consequences above, still creating a kind culture instead of a “nice” one.

Clarify Expectations, Standards of Performance, and Meeting Types: Ambiguity feeds toxic niceness, so clarify how you expect people to treat one another and hold each other accountable. Be explicit that you expect intellectual honesty, candid feedback, and tough questions. This change won’t be easy so it’s imperative that you clearly explain the organisation’s current position, future position and how the transition between the two will work. As soon as you communicate the new expectations, hold people accountable when they stray outside what has been specified. Finally, when you have meetings, have an agenda and be explicit in explaining the type of meeting you intend to have. If you are there to discuss and decide issues, say so. If it’s an exploratory meeting to ideate and innovate, let everyone know up front. If it’s about communication and coordination, don’t keep it a secret.

Publicly Challenge the Status Quo you Helped Create: Don’t expect others to muscle through the fear and usher in a new era of truth-telling if you haven’t created the required behaviour and shared it first. You must be the first mover, demonstrating vulnerability and fallibility, and showing people that candour is rewarded. When others see you cast aside your ego-based defence mechanisms and pride of authorship for what you built in the past, it will give them courage.

Provide Room Air Cover for Candour: When people do have the courage to express dissenting views and speak candidly, protect them. Reduce the risk of ridicule by thanking those who do. As you accommodate dissent, you will gradually recast the norm until it becomes a cultural expectation.

Tackle and Deal with Performance Problems Immediately: When you don’t address a performance problem, you are tacitly condoning it. And if you hesitate to take action, you will create confusion. Always hold people accountable privately and respectfully. People who don’t respect these new boundaries have a choice to either adopt the new ‘norm’ or find a new opportunity. The one thing they can’t do is retire on the job because it’s no longer an option.

The goal is to be kind, not nice. By being honest with people. I once had a Finance Director who had severely under-performed against the required standards we set. We had a performance related conversation and decided that it would be better if we parted company. Of course, it initially came as a shock to him but six months later when I saw him socially, he was a happy man. He had found a new role that his ability could cope with, his health had improved immensely (he had been extremely nervous and not sleeping when working in the bigger role with us). He thanked me for my candour at our interview and the decision made.

A classic situation where the ‘kindest’ thing was to suggest the right action rather than the ‘nice’ approach of dodging the issue.

If you need some expert help getting the culture of management right, get in touch with us at or call us on 01162325231

The Tinderbox Team