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Published: September 6, 2022
Last Updated: June 8, 2023
6 min read
By: Michelle Cadieux
A nice company culture may seem happy on the surface, but cultural problems often hide and simmer beneath a polished exterior.
What happens when you set rigid or unrealistically high expectations for a team?
Work becomes plagued by a constant sense of urgency, pressure, anxiety, overwork, and even hostile behaviour. In other words, work becomes toxic.
If you've worked in a place like this, you can attest: It's draining to the core. But what's on the other side of the spectrum? In short, is it possible to set the bar too low?
Simply put, yes.
Enter: the "nice" culture. Some researchers also refer to them as cultures of mediocrity.
Here, there is a distinct absence of pressure. Everyone is so concerned about getting along and avoiding uncomfortable interactions that leaders don't hold employees accountable, and people fear speaking up or taking risks.
Everyone is, in a word, nice. Or should we say — too nice.
When nice gets taken to an extreme, it can unbalance a culture; impacting a single team, department, or even spreading to the entire organization. This is a much less talked about way dysfunctional cultures manifest. But like toxic cultures, it can be just as damaging to a business.
Isn't it good to be nice?
Right off the bat, you might be thinking — but wait, isn't it good to be nice?
Of course, employees and leaders should be polite, civil, and respectful of each other. Building healthy cultures requires kindness and courtesy.
Those facts are unquestionable.
Still, in any business, unpleasant situations will inevitably arise. They come in the form of difficult decisions, issues, and topics that must be discussed and made; most importantly, not everyone will always feel happy about them.
In this article about why being nice as a leader can backfire, the CEO of software company Know Your Team says it best:
To that end, niceness becomes problematic when these situations are chronically avoided to the point that it undermines a business's growth, goals, and results.
"Over time,"being nice" becomes your crutch. It's a convenient rationalization to avoid hard decisions, uncomfortable conversations, and controversial actions."
How do these cultures form?
Like most troubled cultures, the nice culture doesn't grow overnight. Or because leaders deliberately set out for this to happen. Small decisions accumulate over time to form these environments.
The following is an interesting quote from the transcript:
"There are two fundamental tensions in organizational culture: results vs. relationships and rules vs. risk. If you ignore one of these values, you end up committing one of my 4 deadly sins of organizational culture: toxicity, mediocracy, bureaucracy, and anarchy."
Here is an illustration to explain Grant's "cultural sins" model more clearly:
Grant's framework of the four deadly sins is fascinating because it shows the many ways unhealthy cultures take shape. Notably, he stresses that companies can be guilty of not just one but all of these sins at once.
This model also dispels a common myth that culture stems from tangible things like social events and fun perks. In reality, an organization's culture is a product of its people's belief systems — especially leaders.
Back to the nice culture, according to Grant, cultures of mediocrity (aka the "nice" culture) grow when these two specific beliefs are at play:
When these beliefs are present to an extreme degree, you may notice some of these actions emerging in your workplace.
The motive behind these behaviours is often genuine: wanting to be relational, considerate, or to prevent conflict.
This is a problem, though, as people start to mirror each other's behaviour. In turn, it leads to a collective lack of action. Trust and respect slowly erode as a result. In other words, in a misguided effort to build close relationships and maintain harmony, leaders produce a whole other flavour of toxicity. And businesses can suffer severe consequences as a result.
Consequences of a nice culture
We've just talked a bit about how excessive niceness can manifest. Now let's explore some implications in more detail.
Both this article from Harvard Business Review and another great article from The Talent Strategy Group discuss the consequences of a nice culture.
Let's discuss a few of the most important ones...
Unclear expectations & standards: Nice cultures all have this in common — a lack of clarity over expectations, standards, and success metrics. This can also apply to personal behaviour standards, not strictly work performance.
Unchecked low performance & bad behaviour: Unclear expectations mixed with leaders trying too hard to protect relationships can cause serious trouble. Under such conditions, fear and avoidance start to rule; this results in a culture where people are not held accountable for bad behaviour or subpar results.
Little feedback: Nice cultures are low on feedback because, first, they lack clear standards. And second, because they want to maximize harmony. Yet, employees may wind up distrusting managers who are not open enough to provide honest feedback. In short, a lack of feedback can actually harm trust.
Low motivation: Unclear expectations mixed with little or no feedback can seriously impact an employee's motivation and productivity. Most people, especially ambitious employees, want to be held to a high standard.
Lack of recognition: Too nice leaders often worry giving recognition would make others feel bad or envious. To avoid this, they give generic recognition to everybody. Or none at all! This lack of personalized recognition makes everyone (especially top performers) feel undervalued. This leads to the following point.
Talent loss: Ambitious employees rarely stay in jobs void of challenges or recognition. Most importantly, if people are not held accountable for low performance or bad behaviour, this can lead to a huge amount of resentment and distrust. As a result, talent has yet another reason to leave.
Boredom: The opposite of a culture of burnout is a culture of "bore-out." This is an actual term coined by researchers. Excessive boredom in the workplace can make work feel meaningless; this can even impact employees' mental and physical health.
Aimless overwork: Nice cultures can be guilty of overwork, except here, due to unclear goals and lack of accountability, the work often feels aimless. In short, these cultures are rife with unproductive busy work and dead-end assignments.
Passive-aggressiveness: In cultures where truth-speaking and openness are silently frowned upon, people resort to passive-aggressive communication instead of being assertive and honest with each other.
Slowed decision-making: When harmony is the unspoken goal, people tend to go along with the majority to avoid rocking the boat. An extreme focus on cooperation ends up slowing down decision-making and often leads to bad decisions.
Stifled innovation: Nice cultures tend to avoid conflict and risk. To innovate, businesses need unconventional thinking and courageous conversations. This means some conflict might arise! Too much niceness naturally suppresses this important process.
With all this said, working in a nice culture can feel just as unsettling as a toxic workplace. But what's the solution? Is there any way to avoid sliding into the "too nice" side of the spectrum?
How to strike a balance
I really like this quote from the article from the Know Your Team blog cited at the top of this one. Her words really give you a sense of what leadership should aim for instead of total niceness.
"Instead of seeking to be nice, we should seek to be honest, rigorous, and consistent. Or even better, we can seek to be nice and honest, nice and rigorous, nice and consistent. A leader can be both. The best leaders embrace this duality."
It's not that one shouldn't be nice at all. Leaders should aim to be nice, but they can be nice and give candid feedback at the same time. These things are not mutually exclusive. In short, you can be both.
So how can a business further prevent unbalancing their culture:
It's admirable for leaders to strive for harmony and to care about strong relationships. But this tendency can be taken too far — when it puts organizational performance at risk.
But remember, the other side of the spectrum isn't optimal, either. Ruthlessly putting results over relationships can tip things into "toxic" territory, equally damaging employee well-being and business results.
The goal is to find a balanced middle ground.
This looks like holding people accountable but doing it respectfully. Or setting high standards for a team while remaining flexible, realistic, and not micromanaging people to the brink of exhaustion.
You will know you've reached this place when work feels purposeful and enriching.
This is in stark contrast to nice cultures, where work feels aimless and stagnant. Or toxic cultures where work feels overwhelming and tense. By striving to build a balanced environment, everyone will benefit; in extension, so will the organization.
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