When being nice is mean

The dictionary defines nice as “pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory.” In a world frequently lacking in civility, many people might feel bringing as nice a persona as possible to work to be a salve to the discourtesy that inundates our lives today. Work is hard enough – remaining agreeable sounds like a great idea. More and more, I’m seeing being nice at the expense of honesty to be a huge disservice to others and hindrance to growth.

At work, there are constant clamors for constructive feedback. “How am I doing? How can I get promoted?” People claim to want to know what they can do to make improvements in their work. A few months ago, I asked another manager at work for feedback. He looked at me and said “Do you really want feedback? Sometimes people ask but they don’t really want to hear about things to work on.” I assured him I did want honest areas for improvement, and he proceeded to tell me about some things I could be doing better. Until I created that very clear guidance of receptivity, he didn’t feel comfortable telling me something I might not like to hear.

I mourn that friendship…sacrificed on the altar of ‘nice’.

A few years ago, I had a manager who was a close friend of mine. Before moving into the role, we had lots of conversations about whether it would hurt our friendship. I trusted them to be honest with me and I would do the same for them. With honest discourse and a shared trust, I believe you can work through most anything. Unfortunately, in this case, my friend valued nice over honest. They didn’t want to give me real feedback when I was doing things that weren’t working out well for the organization. I was doing what I thought was necessary for our team to thrive, but my management felt it was the wrong approach. I ended up making serious mistakes and reacting from a place of emotion. Along the way, my friend-now-manager never told me how serious the problem was for me. There were myriad opportunities to tell me that I needed to change my behavior, but they never took them. Ultimately, it ended with me leaving the company and ending up so much happier than I’d been in years. But I mourn that friendship that I believe was sacrificed on the altar of ‘nice’.

Honesty is a signal of respect

People who work with me today have told me I seem fearless. I speak my mind freely and will engage for what I believe in no matter who I face. Yet I also think empathy is my super power, and value building understanding and relationships with every set of people I meet. I don’t believe being honest has to mean you’re mean – I think it’s a sign of respect! The other day I sent an email out about a speaker I was helping bring to the office. Someone replied and asked if I would mind if they used this opportunity to film the engagement for external purposes. I replied, “To be honest, I actually do mind.” I laid out my agenda and why it wouldn’t be met if we had to dual purpose the event. The person immediately replied and said “Thank you for being honest! It’s so refreshing when someone just says exactly what they mean.”

The difference between cruelty and candor is intention.

I think some people fear that telling others where they are falling short could be perceived as mean. Rattling off a list of inadequacies and deficiencies sure does sound cruel. But if you’re going into a conversation intending to help someone grow and improve, that list is reframed into opportunities and growth areas. Respect the other party enough to tell them what isn’t going well – trust they know you believe in them and are giving the feedback from a place of opportunity.

This month has been a time of reflection for me. I’m realizing that there are areas where I’m not applying my own guidelines. I’m working on this and hope I can report back on new successes on this front in the coming months. I’ll leave you with this fact, which is unfortunately true about me. Don’t copy me – my willingness to be candid is inversely proportional to my authority over the other party.