The first stop in my career after college was a large accounting and consulting firm based in Minnesota. As consultants often do, I traveled constantly. At one point I found myself in a long term engagement at a large, local organization in Minne. As you might guess, I loved it. Mostly because it was local, and I could go get beers with friends every other night at my favorite haunts (I was a recovering college kid after all). If that wasn’t enough reason to love it, I also realized — these people were so nice! There was rarely any friction. Most meetings ended with the good, Midwestern “can do” attitude I was accustomed to.
Imagine my chagrin when I found out that I was struggling to get anything done! For those who’ve lived there, I had just encountered “Minnesota Nice”.
Incredibly, Minnesota Nice has a Wikipedia definition:
Minnesota nice is the stereotypical behavior of people born and raised in Minnesota to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. The cultural characteristics of Minnesota nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation. Critics have pointed out negative qualities, such as passive aggressiveness and resistance to change.
Over the years I’ve heard the term re-emerge in meetings at other organizations – and typically directed inward toward the company where I was working. I’ve also heard it emerge in the oft asked, “Are we too nice?”. To be clear, I completely understand the sentiment behind this question (recall my first job). Are we so nice that we would trade being effective for the right to be nice?
Unfortunately, this question never makes it past my BS meter. Too nice? Seriously? It strikes me that we might be conflating nice with ineffective. Or more likely, we are conflating “less-nice” with “healthy conflict”.
Don’t We Need Conflict?
You might ask the question, “don’t we need conflict to be effective”? The answer is a resounding “YES”! However, 85 years of organizational and psychological science is very clear on this point – “Conflict is not what helps teams become effective. The act of healthy conflict, delivered in a kind and civilized way, helps create trust and ultimately effective teamwork.” If you believe the science, being nice is not the enemy. In fact, a healthy system OVERTLY REQUIRES you to be nice, humble learners.
There are real dangers in misunderstanding this point. Setting your sights on “creating more conflict” alone will NOT make you more effective. My contention is that you can engage in healthy conflict, and protect a respectful culture that you’ve worked so hard to create. I’m suggesting you stop asking, “Are We Too Nice?”…and start asking, “How can we be more effective?” And to answer that question, there is an incredibly large body of knowledge about organizational effectiveness and building high performing teams. There are hundreds of studies, 1000’s of books, and dozens of leaders in this domain. Read Glenn Parker’s “Twelve Characteristics of a Great Team”, or Lencioni, Maxwell, Deming, Kotter, Goldsmith, Peters, and on, and on, and on…. Pick your favorite. The all say the same thing. Be good listeners, have open communication, and disagree in a kind, civilized manner.
Conflict <> Healthy Conflict
It’s been said that culture is the exhaust of the systems we create. If you want to continue to have a healthy culture, using years of scientific data and research, then I implore you to take this seriously. Generically creating conflict and being an asshole is an uneducated copout. The command and control attitude is simplistic, short-term thinking that never makes organizations great in the long run. Help create a system where being nice is not only reasonable, it’s viewed as your market advantage… a strategic differentiator. Help redefine “Nice”, and wear it like a badge of honor!
I will sign off by repeating my Grandpa’s clear instructions to me as a kid every time we spoke…
Have Fun and Be Nice.