The Dangers of a “Too Nice” Workplace

Efforts to be “nice” at work can backfire and be counterproductive if they result in avoidance of feedback, clear communication, and dialogue between managers and employees.

“Nice” is good, right? The answer when it comes to the workplace is it depends on what “nice” means. If it means avoiding clear communication for fear of hurting or angering an employee, “nice” isn’t so “nice.”

Goh Chiew Tong, a professor at New York University, shares in a post on the CNBC Make It Website how efforts to be kind can backfire and be counterproductive.

“There has been a huge push around well-being and niceness at work, being kind, empathic, and caring—which are obviously good traits to have,” Tessa West, who is also a psychology professor at NYU, told Tong on CNBC Make It. “But what ends up happening is, we’ve somehow pitted niceness against clear communication and confrontation, even when it’s necessary.”

There is, ironically, significant unintentional cruelty in letting an employee flounder, unknowingly delivering a subpar performance, and then surprising them with termination. It’s also unkind to let an employee continue to do unsatisfactory work until it gets to the point that the poor approach to work becomes solidified as habit. If the employee had been corrected quickly, the poor approach would not have had a chance to become the default way they work.

Unnecessary Comments

However, there are kind and unkind ways to correct a person. I submit short fiction stories for publication to small literary journals, and I usually receive a form letter when being rejected. One time, though, a perhaps well-intentioned editor sent me feedback, presumably to help me improve. A couple of the tips he offered were helpful. However, his delivery left something to be desired. “…the story doesn’t exactly grab the reader,” he felt the need to say. I found the comment snarky and unnecessary, and immediately tuned out the rest of what he had to say and angrily replied to him.

The editor interpreted my anger as being directed at the rejection of the story. Actually, I was angry at his approach to delivering the news. You don’t want managers to do the same when delivering course-correction criticism to employees. Managers should be trained to deliver instructions about things they would like done differently minus gratuitous commentary. The editor who contacted might have said instead, “The story isn’t fast-paced, action-filled, and concise enough for us.” I see now that was what the editor meant, but his tone was upsetting enough that it took me a while to calm down and think about what he was saying. You never want criticism meant to improve work to spark an emotional response.

The need to avoid unnecessary commentary is especially important if the employee produced work that was their brainchild or a creative endeavor. The employee may attach their own identity or personal value to the work, so that when the manager is critiquing them, it feels like they are being personally criticized.

Insincere Compliments

Starting the conversation with insincere compliments is not a good approach to ease the blow. I had a manager who did this so regularly that whenever he gave me a compliment, I winced because I knew he was only doing it to prepare me for negative commentary. I almost think it’s better to give the critique first, and then, at the end, when the employee is in a concerned state, to make them feel better with compliments—if the manager has any they can sincerely give.

Request for a Redo

Phrasing the request for a redo or update as a question can give the employee a greater sense of control and can impart that the manager respects the employee enough to ask, rather than demand. The manager could then add at the end (if they mean it): “I found your general idea intriguing. I’m looking forward to learning more about it!”

“Anne, I wanted to thank you for sending me your new product proposal last week. I’ve had a chance to go over it, and there were some things I wanted to see if you could revise. There were a few points where I found myself wanting greater detail, including a breakdown of the costs and the potential return on investment. Could you add those elements to the proposal and send it back to me by a week from today?”

If the employee continues to produce work that doesn’t meet the manager’s needs, despite requests with instructions to do it in a different or enhanced way, it’s best for that uncomfortable conversation to happen sooner than later:

“Anne, we have talked before about updating your new product proposals with greater detail, and the need to include ROI information. Is there a reason you have been unable to do that? We want to provide you with all the resources you need to get your work done and meet our requirements. However, the standards for work here are what they are, and if the work you submit continues to lack the needed elements, we will have to terminate your employment.”

This is an uncomfortable conversation to have, but it’s worse to surprise an employee, who thought they were secure, with the news that the manager has been unhappy with their work all along, and now, with little-to-no warning, they are losing their job.

How do you train managers to deliver course-correcting critiques? Do you emphasize the kindness of direct, clear communication about work performance?