Do you keep problems to yourself for fear of being seen as rude, negative or downright mean? You’re not alone. In a recent survey by Fierce Inc., eight of 10 full-time workers in the U.S. said they don’t speak up about issues because of a desire to seem “nice.”
This concern for niceness occurs across organizational levels and in both genders. “As humans, we do crave connection, and this idea of our wanting to be liked and building relationships is very core, I think, to the human condition,” says Stacey Engle, president of Fierce.
Here are five tips that will not only change your mindset about what it means to be “nice” but also help you spread that mindset throughout your organization.
1. Determine Where You Are Now — and Where You Want to Go
As in many other aspects of personal and professional development, self-awareness is key. Understand your own feelings about having difficult conversations and “niceness.” Jennifer Davis, MBA, CPCC, PCC, an executive leadership coach, says that we often become “trapped in binary thinking and assume that we can either be nice or give critical feedback,” especially if we’ve had experiences with people who gave us feedback in a hurtful way or if we are uncomfortable with conflict.
Lindsay Lapaquette, M.Sc.(A), a human behavior and interpersonal communication specialist, says that the first step in learning to be both candid and kind “is to become in tune with your communication zones.” If you’re in a reactive zone, you might respond by being aggressive or withdrawing from the conversation entirely. On the other hand, if you’re in a receptive zone, you can talk calmly, because you know how “to manage the difficult emotions that may arise.”
Understanding your culture is also important to knowing how to be both kind and candid. “Do people feel that they can speak freely and share ideas? Addressing that [question] as a larger organizational level is really, really important,” Engle says.
Similarly, says Amie Devero, a coach and consultant and the author of “Powered by Principle: Using Core Values to Build World-Class Organizations,” if your culture isn’t authentic, or it “prizes congeniality over self-improvement,” people might not take your feedback well.
2. Confront the Behavior
Confronting the behavior head-on — whether it’s your own or a colleague’s or employee’s — is one a recommendation from Fierce’s research. One way to do so is to “consider the issues caused by not being forthright,” says Alex Robinson, HR manager at Team Building Hero. “For example, in a quarterly review, you can heap praise onto your direct reports, but if you don’t tell them about concerns with their performance, then it will be a surprise when they are put on a performance review plan or terminated — which isn’t good for anyone.”
You might differentiate between kindness and niceness, as Chris Chancey, founder of Amplio Recruiting, does: “Being nice often leads to sugarcoating, which does not solve problems and instead enables issues to fester. Approaching difficult conversations with kindness, on the other hand, allows you to be both objective and empathetic, which are the baseline requirements for candidness.”
As Engle says, “tip-toeing around things isn’t actually nice.” If employees don’t know what them need to do to grow personally and professionally, you’re putting them — and their colleagues — at a great disadvantage. The kind thing to do is to be respectfully candid.
3. Learn How to Provide Feedback
Feedback is difficult, for the person receiving it as well as the person giving it. But “quality feedback benefits everyone,” according to Dr. Melanie Katzman, author of “Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning, and Joy at Work” (McGraw-Hill, October 2019). Don’t you want to know how you are performing? Your colleagues and employees probably do, too.
“The great news,” Davis says, “is that we can hold both kindness and directness at the same time once we learn to overcome personal barriers and learn new feedback tools.” Seek training, either inside your organization or from a consultant or training provider, on how to give effective feedback. If the training is good, consider rolling it out to your whole organization — but make sure you do it across levels and departments, says Lapaquette. “Such training is not nearly as effective if only certain sectors of the organization engage in such training.”
Robinson recommends starting difficult one-on-one meetings by saying, “We are going to have a difficult conversation today. It’s going to be tough, and we are going to get through it!” Davis’ approach to giving feedback, meanwhile, is described with the acronym WWIN™:
- Why: Identify your motive for giving feedback. “Come from your heart, and tell them what you want for them, the relationship, the project,” Davis says. “Beginning with appreciation and positivity sets the tone for a non-defensive reaction.”
- What: Describe the behavior you’re providing feedback on without any judgment.
- Impact: Explain what happened as a result of the person’s behavior, whether they meant it to happen or not.
- Next: Work with the person to hear their thoughts on the situation and decide on next steps. (Katzman calls this step “feed forward” — giving information on how to improve rather than focusing solely on the past.)
4. Build Trust
“Here’s the thing,” says Michelle A. Whyte, a professional success strategist trained by the Emily Post Institute in Business Etiquette: “One can be candid and careful. One can also be nice yet truthful. The missing link between the two is trust.”
When you’ve built a relationship that includes mutual trust, you and the other person will be more comfortable raising issues and being yourselves. How can you build that kind of relationship? Step one is, in fact, being more candid, Whyte says. “The professional [who] intentionally moves from a place of honest consideration is more likely to gain the trust of peers and the attention of higher-ups [than] someone with a facade of niceness.”
Demonstrate to others that they can trust you by empathizing with them. Ask them questions so you can better understand them, and use phrases like, “I think I understand what you are saying/feeling” and, “Tell me more about that,” says Andres Lares, managing partner of Shapiro Negotiations Institute. If you’re about to give some negative feedback, he adds, “put yourself in a good mental place” by using “power poses,” smiling or doing something you enjoy. Writing down what you want to say and reading it aloud to yourself or a trusted colleague can help you fine-tune your message and make it more precise and empathetic, he says.
“Instead of saying, ‘Your performance on that project was not so bad,’ which is an attempt at niceness,” Chancey says, an empathetic approach would be to say, “I appreciate all the work you put into that project, in spite of all the challenges, but I am concerned some of the most important goals were unmet.”
5. Teach Others
Organizations that nurture a culture of niceness as well as candidness, Whyte believes, will create opportunities “for open exchange and innovation,” thereby improving its productivity, retention and profits.
Tara Davidson, global head of human resources at eVestment, recommends adopting a framework “that encourages frequent feedback that is honest but that highlights for employees that the feedback is aimed at making them better at their jobs” rather than as something that is meant to punish them. eVestment reinforces the framework they use in emails and even the TVs located in each office. “We’ve even adopted a new online feedback tool that allows for quick, weekly updates and feedback from employees to their leaders and back,” she adds, “so our technology aligns with our overall cultural approach to feedback and coaching.”
Lead by example; after all, “there is no workable way to have a culture of honesty and candor while also preserving the senior leaders’ rarified air,” says Devero. Demonstrate that you’re open to feedback — by asking for it — and others will do the same. Provide training on feedback tools, and make sure it includes time for practice so people feel safe using them “in real life.” Provide opportunities for employees to bring up issues without having to be afraid of repercussions, Chancey says, and reward the people who do so respectfully. “Admittedly, not every candid remark will be helpful, but, on the other hand, nurturing a culture of candor and kindness comes with more benefits than downsides.”
“Being truly nice,” Engle says, “means that we’re going to talk with one another in a skillful way.” It means understanding what “niceness” really means and the value of candidness in the workplace. It means self-reflection and self-development, and it means modeling the behaviors you seek for others. Shifting your mindset from wanting to be nice to being kind but direct will impact not just your work life but the rest of your life, too.