Three Challenges of Dealing with Nice People

When I was in high school, my friend Ceytha and I shared a nightmare: being surrounded by a crowd of people, hissing “nice nice nice” at us. I suspect now that it had something to do with the pressures we felt as young women to “be nice” while we were doing things that Nice Girls didn’t do, like dying our hair pink or asserting ourselves.

Nobody likes working with jerks. I’m certainly not advocating that. But operating within a “Nice” culture also has challenges. Here are three:

1. Nice people default to saying Yes

Very few people like working with someone who says No all the time. It also indicates that something fundamental is wrong in your organization, that you have to ask permission, that people feel obligated to say No.

But being surrounded by people who say Yes all the time is also a problem. I’m not talking about yes-men who agree with their bosses’ every opinion. I’m talking about people who, when you ask if something is realistic, automatically answer Yes.

Can you get this done by Friday? Yes, when they already have a full plate of higher priorities and two team members have time off. Can you join the 10 am decision meeting? Yes, when they already have another meeting scheduled then that they can’t move.

Then, one of two things happens:

  • They don’t follow through. “Just realized I’m double-booked” – as the meeting is starting – “you’ll need to reschedule.” OR, at 4:45 on Friday, “Yeah, I didn’t get to this. I’ll have to get it to you next week.”

OR

  • They become overwhelmed and drop a wall of NO. (Raise your hand if you’ve been here.) Suddenly, everything becomes impossible. They say No to things that should be priorities. They become an obstacle to progress.

What can you do if you’re an automatic Yes-er? Reframe the question: instead of answering, “Can you get this done by Friday?” Answer, “What would it take to get this done by Friday?” Then make a list of other work that would have to move, additional resources you would need, or a scaled back scope of what they’re looking for. And discuss that with them instead.

2. Prioritizing “nice” behavior over productive disagreement.

Productive disagreement is one of the least-appreciated skills in “nice” cultures. The ability to fight for what you advocate – without breaking bones – is key to making effective decisions.

In “nice” organizations, people often avoid rocking the boat. Need to make choices amongst a plethora of options, with limited resources? The Nice people in the meeting tune out, don’t engage, and don’t speak up. Or they say vague things like, “Well, I guess that will have to be okay.”

Until the rubber hits the road. Then they lobby behind the scenes until they get their way. Or they go their own path, despite what the group has agreed upon. Or complain how unfair everything is.

If you do this, level up. When you’re in these meetings, stop multi-tasking and pay attention. When it’s your turn to speak, be ready to present data and tie your proposal back to the strategic initiatives: my proposal will reduce overhead by $X which will enable us to meet our strategic goal of cost reduction. And be prepared to ask questions about other’s proposals. If you don’t win, commit to the outcome and move on.

3. Nice organizations fear transparency.

If your organization prioritizes being Nice, you may have a transparency problem because it doesn’t feel Nice to call out missed targets. Nobody likes their challenges to get the spotlight – but that’s not what transparent feedback is intended to do.

Several years ago, I read an article about Dreamworks, which described how every week (or maybe it was every month), each movie development team would bring work samples to a huge meeting and show it off for the other teams. Maybe they’d act out a little of the script or show early roughs. And then they’d listen to the feedback. That takes a lot of trust and a willingness to accept that some of your decisions just don’t work when exposed to sunlight.

A Nice organization finds this kind of meeting threatening. Feelings might get hurt. Nice people fear sharing progress on their work. They don’t see indicators that allow them to get back on track. They see threats, attacks, to be defended against.

They don’t like giving or receiving individual feedback either. If little problems come up, they don’t point them out real-time to the person. Because there may another side of the story that reveals their ownership in the problem. (You agreed to do X to solve this problem; you didn’t do X, and now my team has to work overtime instead, again.) Instead, they stew to the boiling point, then complain behind the person’s back.

If you dread interim reports or feedback about your area, rather than focusing on how to correct perceptions, ask yourself how you can course correct. You don’t want to receive feedback at launch about problems that interim data could have flagged.

And regularly spend time with people you fear most: getting to know each other allows you both to feel more comfortable giving and receiving feedback. Practice giving regular feedback about little things to build the trust you’ll need to discuss big things.

What do you think?

I don’t know anyone who would prefer to work with a jerk. But the pressure to be Nice Nice Nice all the time can be just as damaging to an organization.

I’d like to hear from you: what are other challenges of Nice organizations?

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