The Problem with Being Nice

By Melissa Karz
Partner, Next Step Partners

Next Step Partners Stop Being Too Nice

What’s the problem with being nice all the time? 

My experience working with teams and leaders who get stuck in the “politeness loop” is that it restricts learning. Too much energy is spent managing impressions and avoiding friction by trying to be nice and polite, and not enough energy is spent sharing what one really thinks.

Teams remain in their comfort zones. The results of this niceness are that they don’t have necessary but candid conversations, they don’t welcome different points of view, and they don’t feel safe to challenge the prevailing wisdom in a productive way. During a meeting, for instance, people look like they are happy and everything is humming along smoothly. But offline, they are secretly disagreeing with others on the team and are not feeling free to openly discuss disagreements. For these teams, trust ultimately breaks down and innovation is hampered.      

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson puts it this way: “Polite workplaces don’t have candor because there is no psychological safety. Nice is often synonymous with not being candid.”

The goal for effective leaders is to get teams out of the comfort zone and into the learning zone, where everyone productively challenges and questions each other without feeling panicked or overwhelmed. Healthy dialogue emerges when we think together and use the energy of differences to enhance and connect our collective wisdom. A constructive clash of opinions often leads to a productive road to action, insight and innovation. Sometimes, we have to “fight to unite”.

So, how can leaders and teams move into the learning zone?

By practicing courageous authenticity. 

Courageous authenticity, as defined by the Leadership Circle Profile 360 assessment is: “Courage in the workplace to authentically and directly deal with risky issues in one-to-one and group situations.” More specifically, having the willingness and ability to take tough stands, bring up the “un-discussables,” believe and value openness over popularity, and address situations directly.  

This doesn’t have to be an “either/or,” but rather can be a “both/and.” Leaders can be both collaborative and courageously authentic.                 

Consider this example: I recently took an executive team through their individual and team Leadership Circle Profile 360 assessments. This is a powerful 360 leadership assessment tool used to assess individual and team strengths and opportunities for development. Overall, the leaders’ results were exceptional in almost all areas except on courageous authenticity, in which the individual leaders scored low across the board. 

What happened next was fascinating. Despite their mostly exceptional results, they began resisting and questioning the entire process, and even asked, “why are we even doing this?”  The CEO, who also scored lower in courageous authenticity, at first shied away from the heated dialogue and friction instead of re-anchoring the team in the program’s purpose.

What became clear to me in that moment was that both the leader and team’s collective reaction mirrored the avoidance of the very behavior on which they had scored low: courageous authenticity.

I saw a *learning opportunity* written all over this!  What a perfect opportunity for the leader to take a step back and notice what he and the team were avoiding, and the consequences of that avoidance.  Once he made that connection, and was able to see his pattern playing out in the moment, as well as some past avoidant behavior, everything suddenly shifted.            

Embracing their feedback would require these leaders to honestly express what they felt and have candid conversations, provide feedback, discuss conflict, surface challenging issues, and be direct.  

Instead, they were stuck in the “politeness loop.” Like many teams we work with, this team was holding themselves back by the belief and assumption that engaging in such behavior would risk their collaborative culture. While in the short term this can feel true, they were unwittingly sacrificing more important, long-term goals of the team and the company that would have been better served by real communication rather than avoiding it with “niceness.”

Once we named this, everything opened up. Since then, we’ve been supporting this team on a longer team journey that includes embracing courageous authenticity.  

As leaders, it’s important to model courageous authenticity from the top and infuse it into the culture. Without it, leaders can’t build trust, improve relationships, be in the learning zone, innovate, or get to the root causes of problems.

How to get out of your comfort zone and step into your courageous authenticity: 

  1. First, acknowledge that collaboration/camaraderie and courageous authenticity can co-exist.     
  2. Next, identify what assumptions may be holding you back (Example: fear that a relationship or team couldn’t recover from experiencing friction or fear of losing a collaborative culture). 
  3. Take incremental steps and craft experiments to begin testing assumptions:
  • Communicate what you are honestly thinking, with a high level of integrity and celebrate others for doing the same     
  • In meetings, surface issues and share differing points of view
  • Be willing to admit mistakes     
  • Provide respectful and direct feedback to someone, including on a controversial issue     
  • Manage a conflict quickly, directly and honestly     
  • Articulate the “un-discussables”: what you and others are not saying (but will likely talk about in the hallway after the meeting adjourns).

Tessa West, an NYU professor, states: “The biggest way to destroy psychological safety is through a culture of niceness, because you don’t really know what anyone actually thinks.” While it is risky to step into courageous authenticity, it is more detrimental to a team and organization not to. Acting with greater integrity and courage leads to better decisions and outcomes, more open and honest communication, increased trust, improved team dynamics, and greater innovation and adaptability.



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