After so many high-profile scandals and individual complaints of toxic culture, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, it’s surprising that there are some who think that a company culture can be ‘too nice’.
Creative management consultancy B+A’s co-founder Ben Andrews explains that the ‘frat-boy’ culture of Uber made headlines in 2017. More recently, WeWork has drawn scrutiny for its bizarre leadership behaviours and almost ‘cultish’ way of operating.
Despite these headlines there are however plenty of people who subscribe to the view that a company culture can be too nice, often citing the negative or dampening effect that ‘niceness’ allegedly has on creativity, productive discussion and, ultimately, profit. But the exact arguments vary. Some say that in such an environment people are afraid of disappointing others or seeming to be negative. Others say that the decision-making process becomes painfully slow due to a felt need to always reach a consensus. But all of them seem to share a misapprehension of what a ‘nice’ culture is, and how a company with a nice culture functions.
It might be true that in the ‘ruthless’ business world, ‘nice’ just doesn’t seem to send the right message. Maybe it seems passive or weak. But as a founder—and a founder of a creative management consultancy that specialises in culture—I’d love my team to think that B+A is a ‘nice place to work’.
That’s not only because I value this quality and have seen how beneficial it is to businesses, but because there are many companies where niceness is in short supply, and it’s clear to see in numerous areas, from staff retention to reputation and stifled innovation.
In fact anyone who has found themselves in this kind of environment will probably have a very specific understanding of what niceness implies in a cultural context (and they, like me, will not have come to the conclusion that there can be too much of it).
The common complaints about a ‘nice’ culture tend to rely on a series of assumptions. One of these is that everyone in a business feels safe, comfortable and willing and able to speak up. So those who believe niceness throttles productive debate because no one wants to offend anyone are assuming that the debate would happen anyway.
But in reality—and even in some healthy cultures—people frequently don’t feel safe or comfortable enough to put forward an opinion, let alone to disagree with others or to challenge the status quo.
In fact the truth is that most people bring a fraction of who they are to work, and if your goal as a business leader is to get the very best out of your team (which is surely the goal of every business leader) then a minimum requirement is to create an atmosphere in which people can feel comfortable being themselves.
If you create a space in which people are willing to be vulnerable, they won’t feel judged for who they are or what they think, and this can only lead to more (and better) ideas.
This doesn’t need to involve lowering your standards. There is no rule that says that in order to be constructively critical or to challenge people to do better, you have to be nasty or ‘not nice’. In other words, you can still hold your team to the highest standard without becoming a bully.
When there is respect, fairness and empathy in the culture itself, not only does everyone contribute, but everyone understands that appraisals, reviews or ad-hoc challenge is done with their interests in mind—which is always to say with the interests of the business in mind.
After all, treating people instrumentally can only yield short-term results. If you want to have a productive team long into the future, you need to form real, lasting and healthy relationships with your people.
What we’ve often found in our work at B+A is that toxic cultures emerge when people fail to see others as individuals, but also fail to be themselves as individuals.
And it’s only when these two criteria are met that teams can work happily, and therefore productively, towards a common goal. It isn’t easy to do this (even if those who rail against ‘niceness’ tend to suggest it is). But the benefit gained by the individual members of the team and the business itself really cannot be overstated.
So perhaps the real point on ‘nice’ is that no company culture should be defined by a single feature. The place in which you work is not just nice, or just challenging, or just intimidating.
Invariably it’s a collection of multiple values, vibes and feelings – that you have to balance in just the right way to be able to create a culture that people want to be part of.
And whilst it might sound obvious, I’m pretty sure that 10 out of 10 people would rather a feature of the place they work in be that it’s nice rather than horrible right ?