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The Culture Conundrum: Why Being ‘Nice’ Can Lead to Trouble

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February 28, 2022

You may be working in a culture that is TOO nice!

Have you ever been invited to a meeting AFTER the actual meeting? You know, the one where you engage in slating the first meeting….?

You know what I’m talking about – everyone was lovely and pleasant in the (probably virtual) room, but then they all got together without the instigator of the meeting to hold some kind of kangaroo court.

It’s ridiculous, right? But it happens more often than you would think – and yes, I’ve done it before.

This is what happens when you have a culture that touts ‘professionalism’ (but they mean ‘don’t cause conflict’), ‘positivity’ (but they mean ‘don’t cause conflict’) and ‘strong leaders’ (but they mean ‘do what we say so we can get there quicker’).

These false values are nothing more than a veneer – of inclusion, energy, high performance and pseudo- psychological safety (had to check my spelling for that!). There’s an appearance of collaboration and alignment, but really there is a lack of honesty and a feeling of fear simmering away that only comes out in places where change can’t be affected (in the back corridors).

Why does it happen?

In my experience, it usually comes from a good place. A place where there is a mission or a vision to do good things, to grow, and to look after employees. This is what causes the niceness. Everyone wants to work at/lead a company that has a great, fun working environment. It’s often this feeling that CEO’s chase after when they call their company a ‘family’.

There are lots of reasons for this:

Avoiding conflict

 Usually driven by a desire to be liked, and a quest to have a harmonious business where there is alignment. People don’t want to offend, but in this quest it usually deep-seats distrust.

To give a feeling of inclusion

If we are nice, we are treating people nicely and everyone will fall in line nicely. This doesn’t work for diverse employee groups that need to break down barriers to be included, but don’t want to be seen as ‘not nice’.

Fear culture

If you are nice to those in charge, your job is kept safe.

Motivational technique

There is a perception that employees work harder for those they like. And those they like are ‘nice’. However, in reality, this can result in a lack of accountability and a lack of follow-through. It is a toxic environment where people say ‘yes’ a lot but then don’t follow through on commitments.

But isn’t it nice to be….nice?

Sure, but in business, it can cause chaos, catastrophe and ill-feeling.


A ‘nice’ culture boosts apathy because people lose their desire to be proactive. People will wait and wait until a problem becomes a crisis because they are either unwilling to raise it, or on the occasions they do, it is ignored because there was no-one willing to have the tough conversation. I have worked with companies where it was well-known amongst all employees that they moved poor performers from team to team rather than address the issues. This drove a culture of ‘well, I’m not as bad as Steve so what are they going to do?’. People openly mocked the company for it but also took comfort from it.

Blocked creativity

Innovation creates growth. Growth drives profits. Innovation can only happen when people take risks, have courageous conversations and aren’t afraid to think differently. If a company is too ‘nice’, and doesn’t have a psychologically safe environment for people to put forward radical ideas, the status quo will be maintained. Such a company won’t last for long.

Loss of talent

‘A’ players want to make significant contributions and be rewarded and recognised for it. If the status quo is not able to be challenged by having a tough conversation, nothing will change. Or worse, the status quo is challenged by a brave soul, and the company agrees that change must be implemented, but then does nothing. ‘A’ players will give up and move on. Probably to your competitors. One of the employees of my client once said to me ‘I’d rather they just told me my ideas were rubbish. Instead, I wait and wait for the go-ahead on an idea everyone agrees is good, but it never comes. I’d rather they just said no. It’s soul-destroying’.

Echo Chambers

If people aren’t prepared to challenge the status quo, or challenge how things are being done, there ends up being an echo chamber. This leads to endless rounds of discussions over and over, where everyone agrees that something isn’t working, but no-one is prepared to call out the reasons why. This then leads to chronic indecisiveness.  

How does this appear?

I once observed a meeting where the CEO was so wedded to a process (his own process) that had previously worked well, that he made it incredibly difficult for anyone to challenge it. Everyone accepted that the impact/outcome wasn’t working, but because he was so defensive of his own process the meeting continued for hours whilst people continued to explore all the other options. The CEO would rather accept that the employees were performing poorly than the company had outgrown the process. Everyone in the meeting gave up. There were tears afterwards. It was a disaster. From that one meeting, 3 people resigned within 2 weeks.

What can we replace ‘niceness’ with?

Answer: Kindness. And not the #bekind type. The radical, forward-thinking, direct kind of kindness.


Ambiguity is the best friend of niceness. Be clear that you expect honesty, clear feedback and make space for tough challenges. Hold people accountable when they don’t display these behaviours. Clarify the types of meetings you are having. Are they decision-making ones? Are they innovation meetings, where people are given the freedom to put forward different ideas safe in the knowledge they won’t just be humoured?


As leaders, you need to be the role models for this and display the behaviours you want others to emulate. You can do this by publicly challenging your own ideas. It is incredibly powerful to be vulnerable, to pause and say ‘what am I missing?’, or ‘am I going down the wrong path here?’. When you cast aside your ego, you pull in other people’s courage.


When people are encouraged to be courageous and speak candidly, protect them. Thank them publicly for doing so. By doing this, you will transition the company culture to one of courage.


Normally viewed as a negative word, but hear me out!  When you don’t address a performance problem, you send a clear message to others that you condone it. Hold people to account privately and respectfully. Be clear about the expectations of behaviour and the impact on themselves and others if they can’t adapt. People who are unable to adapt to this can always find a new opportunity. Don’t let them languish in a company that isn’t right for them. 

Channel the tension, and manage it. 

It’s kind for everyone.

Kate Maddison-Greenwell – Founder and Director, People Efficient

Kate Maddison-Greenwell, founder of People Efficient, is an expert in the Organisational Design, Digital Transformation and HR fields, using her knowledge of Agile, Scrum and Kanban to help companies reimagine how HR gets done.

Her background leading complex projects on employee engagement, employee experience, culture, wellbeing, project management and employee relations with clients such as Commonwealth Games, BMW, Channel 4 and Lee Stafford, have helped leaders to put their people at the front and centre of their business strategy.

Kate uses her Masters level in HR, Agile and Scrum qualifications to help leaders respond to change at pace and build transparent, efficient and people-centred cultures. She is an energetic, digitally focused and an innovative facilitator, podcast host and keynote speaker; as well as a passionate advocate for equality and developing other HR practitioners. Kate utilises her platform, which includes a top performing HR podcast, to encourage HR leaders to join the HR (R)Evolution and transition to the next phase of modern HR.

You can find Kate on Linkedin at

Or check out the HR Director’s Cut podcast – number 4 on the top 100 HR podcasts globally

Contact People Efficient to find out more about our consultancy services, coaching and courses.