Friday, September 26, 2008

Niceness Hurts the Organization

Getting real in what you do as an organization and how you do it often requires a change in your organizational culture. Changing organizational behavior and organizational mindset is imperative to creating high performance teams that are able to create and accomplish highly relevant goals and objectives. One of the most common starting points that I find sadly pervasive in many organizations is a culture of niceness that weighs down most all group (more than 2 people) discussions. The effect is lack of realism, lack of team cohesion, and lack of enthusiasm, lack of real direction, lack of an ability to align to a changed business environment.

A culture of niceness is one where members are perfunctory. They show up at meetings, they pay attention, they offer support when it is safe, and keep quiet when they disagree. Often, they offer their reservations or add-ons to a discussion among their peers long after the meeting is over, completely defusing the effectiveness of the leader and completely eliminating the possibility of the group working as an effective team with collective knowledge and collective thinking abilities.

The result is that what is most likely to get done is more of the same because it is comfortable and the grooves of behavior (we know how to do this, we have always done it this way, this is easy for me because I don't have to think about it) are well worn. This can really threaten an organization's relevance and sustainability. It can also dampen the heft of the work environment to the point of being rather mind numbing for those interested in generative, robust work.

Why do we value niceness? Obviously we value niceness because we want to have pleasant, friendly connections with people. Because we spend so many hours at work, it is common to seek to fill a need for friendship, connection, and intimacy with our work associates. Most people, by nature, seek harmony and avoid conflict like the plaque. Most people value saying something nice and acceptable over the truth - think of the old scenario of do you like my hair?
And, you don't but you say that you do because you don't want to hurt someone's feelings.

A couple of things must be brought to collective understanding in cultures that are wrought with niceness. First, why we are here? We are here to fulfill the mission or the business objectives collectively. The member is personally there because he or she offers skills toward that end. First and foremost, it must be understood that we as members of this organization have a defined, mission-driven job to do. That has to come first over all inter-personal needs. How can we best accomplish that job? Through effective teamwork and effective leadership. Leaders must lead with vision, consistency, clarity, and boldness. Teams need to be cohesive, collectively skilled and motivated, and effective at working together. This takes full engagement from all, honesty, and collaboration. If you are not sharing information for the team to utilize in fulfilling the mission, then you are hurting the team and the organization as a whole. If you are sharing your ideas and opinions outside the group, then you are limiting the ability and opportunity for the group to cohese and develop thinking skills and collective knowledge. People engage in these behaviors routinely and often without awareness because they value their selves, their own personal comfort, more than they do their team or the mission: It's just a job. Or, that makes me uncomfortable. Or, someone else will bring that up. Or, I didn't feel comfortable saying that. This behavior is an indication of a lack of skill, a lack of trust, disengagement, lack of buy in or understanding of the mission, and/or lack of leadership. Most often it is a combination of many of these things. Conflict is healthy, productive, and necessary for an organization to make full, enlightened, well thought out decisions. It is not the job of the leader to think for everyone. He or she absolutely needs others full input and diverse perspectives.

If this looks and sounds familiar, you have some work to do in managing your organizational culture and climate in order to develop effective, reliable, high performance communication and teams. Why bother? Read that mission statement again. Think about what the organization is paying you to do and the trust they have put in you to do it: Is it to be comfortable or to deliver results?

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