When I first heard Brene Brown spoke about the problem of a “nice culture” referring to workplaces and corporate environments, it blew my mind. She was talking about the need for brave leadership and from her deep and rich research with real world leaders, she uncovered facets what courageous leadership meant and what it did not.
So the difficulty with that research is that she had to look first at what it isn’t because most of language and expressions are more well developed on the negative side of things. As it turns out, we seem neurologically wired to dwell more on lack than what we have. Which probably is a post for another day.
One of the things in the workplace culture that lacks courageous leadership is the avoidance of difficult conversation. This gets masked in a culture where everyone is so nice and simply refuse to give negative feedback or be honest about failures. While it is probably plain that such a culture hurts innovation and prevents people from moving forward, the “niceness” bit of things seemed worth protecting.
That is until you realise the niceness isn’t genuine niceness; it is driven by fear. And when I mentioned this to a close circle of friends, they said it was the fear of conflict. Which on the surface may seem to have little to do with leadership but it does. It is because the leadership is not trusted to be bold to do what is right that the fear of conflict arises. There’s the sense an individual must fend for himself/herself even when trying to discover the truth and making things right.
Niceness is the fear of offending that results from having witnessed abuse of power from leaders who are insecure about themselves. It can be as subtle as just raising their voice over others to insist on a point, use of his/her veto regularly to ensure decisions made reflects well on himself/herself rather than for the organisation.
I’ve been in these cultures and I guess I’ve often also failed to look past the niceness into the fear. Rather than to say nice-ness is bad, it’s more important to ask whether there’s such fear beneath the niceness and how do we address that. How do leaders lead and inspire a courage culture where people can have tough conversations and be willing to tell their leaders “I don’t think I can take this…” rather than just silently resign and leave for “personal reasons”.