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The Price of Nice
When talk of kindness came into vogue on social media, my allergies kicked in.
Platitudes as trivial as ‘be kind’ and the kumbaya party-planning committees that spawned them went viral.
Kindness moved on, but for me the message lingered. And then I stumbled on this quote from Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox:
“[we] have developed a culture of terminal niceness… we are really, really, really nice. Employees should act like a part of a real family. When we’re in the family, we don’t have to be as nice as when we’re outside the family… I want us to stay civil and kind, but we have to be frank.”
We are too nice, and so rarely kind. The cause of over-niceness at Xerox are unknown. But I believe niceness is a side-effect of a management addicted to compliance.
In this post, I explore what it means to be kind and why ‘nice’ management is anything but.
Nice Means Shut Up
In the office, ‘nice’ is little more than the status quo flexing its muscle on communications. If your boss has ever castigated you for criticizing a peer, you’ve experienced nice on two-fronts. Your colleague expected nice, and your senior corrected you ‘nicely.’
To be nice in the workplace is to retweet the corporate tweets. Enforce top-down directives. And accept things as they are. Because questioning people, products, or process is rude. So be nice, would ya?
I experienced this first-hand. And women and minorities experience it double.
When management clamps down on directness or refuses new perspectives, they create opportunities. Opportunities for a new kind of growth.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em
When I ‘checked out’ at Zynga, the one thing that was sure to happen, did not. As my performance slipped, my performance reviews danced. Think positive feedback and bonuses. Neither of which management associated to my work.
Zynga rewarded me for "improvements" in my behavior, and setbacks in my productivity. And what you incentivize, you encourage.
If I were a different kind of person, I would’ve seen a clear path to further advancement. As many before me have.
Hand out mouth trophies, forge alliances with like-minded people, and move upward. It would have required minimal labor. All I had to do was say yes, praise inane ideas, stroke egos, and coat my tasks in the thinnest veneer of competence.
What you incentivize, you encourage.
We all know that guy. He exists because companies encourage him to exist. He exists because management seeks compliance.
But I never planned for a career in office politics, and neither did you. Yet these environments thrive in countless organizations, so are they that bad?
The Upside of Compliance
Politeness, office politics, and double-dealing. These must be the side-effects of some greater benefit to the organization — n’est pas?
Psychologists understand that humans long for acceptance. Pre-civilization, group rejection meant certain death. Nowadays, there’s little chance Denise will starve to death after we downsize.
Yet, rejection by the group remains a powerful motivator. Cunning organizations know this: shame works, and public shame works better still.
Non-compliance becomes too risky to the individual’s sense of social belonging. And management can remove those who refuse to comply for their ‘lack of etiquette,’ as I almost was. Or better yet, those people leave of their own accord. As I soon did.
The question then is: how valuable is compliance? If you ask a totalitarian: sehr viel! (that’s German for ‘very much’).
But what benefits does an organization draw from authoritarian rule? An uber-genius leader with full compliance can go-to-market sooner than the competition.
And if their vision is the right one at the right time, the organization prospers. And the leader’s ego remains bloated.
But Will It Fly?
How many successful virtuoso totalitarian leaders have you heard of? I can think of one.
Steve Jobs fit that mold in public, but in private had, and heard his dissenters. Among whom we count the conceiver of the iPhone, whose idea Jobs rejected time and again. Aren’t we glad Steve caved?
The brilliant command-and-control leader is a myth. Compliance is easy to come by, but impossible to wield.
The leader succumbs to error or betrayal and the burden of failure falls on his shoulders.
Meanwhile, the ‘100% compliant’ people beneath the leader are anything but. They game the system and power-grab. As they re-enforce their networks to fend off rivals, they aim up the bullshit ladder.
Anyone who suggests a new metric for success risks the collapse of a framework that built a thousand careers.
That sounds backwards, but it ‘works.’
The Price of Nice
Compliance is fine if all we care about is control. It’s fine as long as we’re willing to sacrifice the dignity of work, the purpose of organization, and the communities we serve. But other than those minor drawbacks, it’s a super-cool management style.
Operating and sustaining an authoritarian organization betrays its promise to society. Organizations do not exist to prolong their existence. We work in groups to provide a benefit to society greater than that which we could provide alone.
By demanding compliance, organizations strap weights to their feet. They squander talent. They inhibit innovation. And they drift at sea.
By now you may have convinced yourself: there’s a lot to lose when we reward ‘niceness.’
But what do we stand to gain by rewarding kindness?
The Meaning of Kindness
My 23-year-old self would disagree, but I showed little kindness to my first coworkers. I spoke truth to power. I called bullshit.
And when I shined a light on flaws in our process, I had the high-beams on. That wasn’t ‘nice,’ but it wasn’t kind either.
Time has shown me that kindness lives at the intersection of empathy and genuine concern.
Empathy demands we listen to and understand another perspective. And our concern demands we offer help.
And where nice demands compliance, kindness demands honesty.
To be kind to one another, we must present the truth as we both see it. We must be frank.
And what prevents a kind person from becoming ruthless one is a choice. Does their truth come out of the business end of a cannon or out of a gift bag?
To be kind, we put our talents and our genuine concerns inside of a box. We wrap that box in ribbons. And we give it away.
Kind people use their words and their ideas to help others achieve their goals. When you receive that gift, your best response is to reply, in kind.
If your report approaches you with an idea to grow the business, even if it seems ludicrous, they brought that to you out of kindness.
Genuine concern and a helping hand.
You can reply ‘nicely’ and remind them of who’s name is on the building. Or you can listen to the problem they are trying to solve.
You can discover how it affects them at work. And in so doing, you may tap into the energy that generated that proposal.
Perhaps their idea is a non-starter. But is there an alternative path that aides them? Can you encourage them to refine the idea?
Kindness is the difference between rejecting someone’s truth and channeling it. And the truth is often painful, it beckons rejection.
But we can only move forward when we face reality; victories on any other battlefield are meaningless.
When we form an organization fueled by kindness, we create a network of eyes aligned to a greater purpose.
But when we enforce compliance, the eyes stop looking out. Because no one can look forward when they’re busy watching their back.