The niceness paradox

Written by Tom Greenwood - December 22, 2021

“It’s just nice to be nice, isn’t it”

That’s what one of our team members once said to me in reference to our team culture. I wholeheartedly agreed with this simple and seemingly unquestionable logic. I personally have always wanted to work with nice people. It’s no accident then that my colleagues here at Wholegrain Digital are all some of the nicest people that I know. It’s one of the things that I love most about our company.

But could there be a downside to niceness, and if so could we overcome it without sacrificing the things that we hold as good?

Observing the shadow 

Earlier this year I helped launch the organisational culture consultancy, Treeka, with Thomas Arta (a leadership coach combining transformative work with developmental psychology) and Chris Hardy (our team coach and cultural architect here at Wholegrain). During the launch Thomas took our guests through an exercise to illustrate a concept called the ‘Subject Object Shift’.

The Subject Object Shift is the exercise of observing something that we are subject to, such as tension in our shoulders, and making it an object in our minds. Once we consciously hold the tension in our shoulders as a conscious thought, we have choices about how we deal with it and can think about it from different perspectives. This shift from being subject to the tension and being conscious of the tension in our shoulders gives us power to make choices about how we respond. 

In our breakout rooms on Zoom, Thomas asked our event participants to make ‘object’ a value or quality in their organisational culture that they are proud of. Values that were suggested by the group included niceness, kindness, servitude, caring for clients and staff well-being. This should not be a surprise, considering the nice group of people in attendance.

Thomas then asked us to look at these positive qualities as objects and ask ourselves whether there are any downsides that we may be subject to without realising it. Do these positive qualities cast any shadows? 

The group quickly began to see that there were in fact downsides, such as giving too much to clients and colleagues at the expense of personal well-being, an inability to have challenging conversations that are needed to solve problems, or prioritising the needs and wants of individuals over the well-being of the organisation as a whole. These are very real downsides of values that hold niceness (and variations of it) as unquestionably good.

Redefining what it means to be nice

In his book, No More Mr. Nice Guy, Robert Glover pulls apart this concept of niceness and argues that without balance, behaviours that we view as nice are sometimes not nice at all. 

When we promise people things that we can’t deliver because we don’t want to say no, we are acting in the guise of niceness while knowingly letting others down. When we pretend to agree with people to make them happy, we may be suppressing our own emotions and bottling up tension that will damage the relationship in the long term. When we avoid having difficult conversations to avoid hurting people’s feelings we are complicit in holding back progress and solutions that could have benefited everyone. 

In an interview with Joe Rogan, evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein talked about the importance of being disagreeable in order to be effective. He said that being disagreeable is never popular but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t sometimes necessary. For example, he stated that:

To get to the moon, you need to be able to say “that idea of yours will not work and here is why”. 

The point is that we need to be able to say what needs to be said and challenge ideas with logical reasoning, without making it personal. He highlighted that disagreeing with an idea is not the same as disagreeing with a person, but too often we conflate the two. When we avoid being disagreeable in regard to ideas (not people), we might make some short term interactions feel nicer, but we inadvertently sabotage our chances of getting to the moon.

All of this is another way of saying that what we perceive as nice behaviour is not always truly nice. When niceness is only focussed on superficially pleasing people, it can hurt the people around us, the organisations we work in, and ourselves.

In fact, the impact on ourselves should not be underestimated. Niceness, while broadly a good and admirable quality, can be a sign of emotional repression and an inability to express oneself. Dr. Gabor Maté details in his book, When the Body Says No, that the emotional repression from a chronic need to please others can be a major contributor to mental and physical health conditions. A more balanced and honest approach to being nice is therefore not just better for those around us, but also in our own best interests.

Building a truly nice culture

It’s clear then that some of us, like myself, who have previously held niceness as something wholly good, must take a step back and adopt a more nuanced and balanced approach. In doing so we can see that true niceness is achieved only when it is balanced by other qualities such as frankness, clarity and honesty, as well as a degree of bravery to say and do things that may feel challenging but which are in everyone’s best interests.

In our team at Wholegrain we’ve been moving toward a more balanced sense of niceness over the past year through our coaching and training with Chris, particularly in areas such as giving feedback and holding challenging conversations. We’ve seen assumptions around our desires to be nice come up as common themes behind things that are holding us back as individuals and as an organisation.

So yes, it is nice to be nice, but only when we recognise that to be truly nice we must communicate in ways that are both caring and clear, aiming to deliver the best outcomes for those involved rather than just make things feel pleasant in the short term. As our Team Genie, Rachael, says about setting appropriate boundaries for our team around client work:

“Clarity is kind.”

Learning this is helping us to work better together with each other as colleagues and with our clients, who are also all very nice, and it is helping us to build stronger, more fruitful relationships. Contrary to my fear that questioning niceness may erode the pleasant atmosphere that we all love, it is actually helping to build a deeper sense of trust and an even more supportive culture, as well as to become more effective as a team.

Make the future a nice one

If you’re keen to work in a team that truly supports each other to be the best versions of themselves, check out our careers page. And if you work for a company that wants to create a more humane, thriving culture, reach out to the team at Treeka for a chat.