Is it Time to End the Era of Excessive Politeness? Why Candid Conversations Create High-Performance Cultures. The "tyranny of niceness" can hinder business by creating a fear of conflict and stifling honest discussion, but there are ways of bending a culture towards both frankness and healthy communication, including conflict-resolution.
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Have you encountered an organizational culture in which people shied away from direct and honest discussions about performance? Regardless of your industry, geography or level of experience, it's likely that you have.
Excessive politeness, also known as the "tyranny of niceness," can hinder high-performance cultures by creating a fear of conflict and stifling open and honest feedback. Therefore, it's essential for leaders to cultivate a positive work atmosphere, to be sure, but also one that supports performance and growth.
This is an issue that has affected many organizations, including B:Side Capital and B:Side Fund, where, as of writing this, I've served as CEO for a little over two years. Throughout a more than 30-year history, they have developed a reputation for positivity, dedication and results. However, as with any enterprise, not everything was perfect. There was a period during which we suffered from a pervasive culture of niceness — starting with genuine regard for team members, clients and partners, but over time transforming into something more grounded in fear. The team was afraid of conflict, of offending and ultimately of giving helpful feedback, and although progress has been made in moving away from these behaviors, some remnants persist.
The recognition that excessive politeness was holding the organization back necessitated a deep conversation about values, principles and expectations. One discussion takeaway we quickly absorbed is that when niceness becomes the norm in all conversations, individuals learn that being polite is more important than being truthful. This creates an environment in which feedback and performance discussions are avoided, leading to missed opportunities, and revenue.
As well-intentioned as it may be, fear of providing feedback is stifling, and those who strive for exceptional results are often forced to either fall in line or leave an organization. Worse still, when market conditions change and an organization's advantage is reduced, the polite culture tends to remain, making it difficult to recover and have crucial problem-solving conversations.
However, it doesn't have to be that way. Leaders can remind team members that they can be both polite and candid in the same exchange, and that courtesy shouldn't obstruct honest discourse.
A root cause of excessive politeness is the fear of not being liked. The desire to be well thought of is a universal human trait, but when it becomes too strong, it interferes with a leader's ability to manage and hold others accountable, especially when it comes to team members who may be viewed as "friends."
Related: The Unwritten Rules of Civility
A few key concepts to consider:
Successful leaders aim to be likable, not just liked
They act from strong values and principles, one of which is to always do the right thing. Being frank is inevitably the right choice. Having an affable style helps, but the need to be accepted by others should not outweigh responsibilities.
Fear of conflict is another factor that contributes to the tyranny of niceness
Conflict resolution is difficult and requires courage, time and energy. Teams not taught healthy conflict-resolution skills struggle to deliver tough messages and often resort to ambiguous language. This undermines a leader's credibility and results in a loss of trust.
The purpose of feedback is to improve
Constructive criticism is the highest compliment a leader can give to a team. Offering feedback, even if it's tough, shows that you care enough to help members succeed.
Leadership is a two-way street, and both leaders and followers must be willing to participate. By embracing feedback and holding each other accountable, organizations can create a culture of improved performance, better results and personal fulfillment.