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We’re Way Too Nice At Work

Mark NicholsLast Updated: May 5, 2016

In an April 2016 piece in The New York Times, Dan Lyons pulled back the curtain on HubSpot’s occasionally strange and puerile corporate practices. In particular, he targeted the company’s firing process, which he found, uh, weird:

…when you got fired, it was called ‘graduation.’ We all would get a cheery email from the boss saying, ‘Team, just letting you know that X has graduated and we’re all excited to see how she uses her superpowers in her next big adventure.’ One day this happened to a friend of mine. She was 35, had been with the company for four years, and was told without explanation by her 28-year-old manager that she had two weeks to get out. On her last day, that manager organized a farewell party for her.”

What’s most noteworthy to me — and there’s a lot to note — is that she was dismissed “without explanation.” This is someone who had spent four critical years of her career at HubSpot, only to be dismissed with no feedback. What’s to stop her from making the same mechanical mistakes at her next job? Isn’t she owed an explanation?

As is briefly described in the essay, HubSpot likely reached the decision to fire her using VORP, which MLB statheads will recognize as Value Above Replacement Player — a statistic used to accurately justify whether or not a player belongs in the major leagues. Understandably and intelligently, HubSpot has found it effective in weeding out underperforming employees, and replacing them with better ones.

It’s a great system — but it only considers the value of the replacement, not the outgoing employee.

Think of it this way: when a major league pitcher gets demoted to the minor leagues, he knows what went wrong — because his coaches tell him. It’s their job to give him the honest truth so that he can improve for the good of the team. Maybe his fastball lost velocity. Or his breaking ball isn’t breaking, or he’s getting lit up during day games. And so they send him from Fenway to Pawtucket, AT&T Park to Sacramento, and he works doggedly on his mechanics. He works with coaches to improve. His team needs him to be better. His fans need him to be better. Everyone needs him to be better.

But in the case of Lyons’s friend at HubSpot, we get a window into one of the primary paradoxical contrasts at startups. On one hand, there’s the draconian, stat-driven, baseballish decision making, wherein if you aren’t producing, you don’t deserve your spot on the team; on the other, your work rarely holds you accountable for your failures (aside from firing you — or, sorry, “graduating” you).

In the end, we’re typically okay firing someone with cause, but we have big hangups about telling them why. The startup as we know it is, after all, built around being a ‘nice’ place to work. Feelings matter now more than ever. We’ve collectively made a point of not hiring ‘assholes,’ and we’ve eschewed harsh lighting and OfficeMax runs for bespoke designer furniture and cozy Quiet Spaces.

Right now, at all levels in the org chart, we’re obsessed with being nice, and terrified of seeming mean. But if we’re too nice as our company grows, are we doing anyone any good?

Narrative Play and The Perfect Storm of Niceness

Unfortunately, this tendency towards extreme niceness — towards avoiding the awful truth — is something that has followed many of us around for our whole lives. In fact, it’s not uncommon for many of us to have spent our early emotional lives in a similar state of shelter.

In Pamela Druckerman’s study of French parenting, Bringing Up Bébé, she introduces the idea of “narrative play,” a pervasive parenting style mainly among upper-middle class Americans.

In narrative play, a parent follows their child around the playground, telling them exactly what they’re doing — a sort of narrator, if that wasn’t obvious. Druckerman describes it as a “nonstop monologue” of the child’s activities. It’s an act of deep affection, but also incredibly excessive concern for their child’s moment-to-moment happiness:

When the boy wanders over to the gate to stare out at the lawn, the mother evidently decides this isn’t stimulating enough. She rushes over and holds him upside down. ‘You’re upside down!’ she shouts. Moments later, she lifts up her shirt to offer the boy a nip of milk. ‘We came to the park! We came to the park!’ she chirps while he’s drinking.”

The subconscious intent? To speed up the child’s development by protecting them from ‘new’ experiences. Rather than let our children feel new things in contemplative — and perhaps frustrated — silence, parents feel the need to explain the activity and the joy that it should provide. In the hot pursuit of a precocious child who grows into a millionaire adult, there’s no time to waste in the frustration of discovery.

Fast forward 20 or so years, and when we join the workforce, many of us are unaccustomed to serious frustration, and much more sensitive to criticism and the failure it implies. And being nice to everyone fits into this mindset perfectly, because it summarily avoids all those nasty things.

Luckily for us — or maybe unluckily — we happen to be joining the workplace at a time when it’s suddenly concerned with being a much nicer place. It’s a perfect storm of niceness: a generation fixated on the avoidance of stress, in an endlessly encouraging, almost coddling environment.

Indeed, employers are more desperate than ever to keep their people happy, and a core part of this has been making the workplace kinder and friendlier. The office is bending towards what makes people comfortable, and that’s a womb-like bubble — an adult playground where our feelings will be protected at all costs.

This is observed very grotesquely in Dan Lyons’s essay: we’re even finding ways to be nice about firing people. Clearly, the average person is still being protected from the unsavory parts of our personal development — disappointment, fear, frustration, failure — and it’s impacting our ability to not only be functioning members of the workforce at large, but regular, complex humans, too.

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What this perfect storm of niceness is really doing, though, is keeping us in that playground, blinded to the new experiences or personal knowledge that might help us get better. Most of us are eager to explore and grow, but we’re kept stationary by the near-impossibility of having our feelings hurt at work. We evade criticizing or being criticized, and the result is total mediocrity — or worse.

A Window Into The Average Too-Nice Workplace

The appeal of being nice is obvious: it feels great. You smile, and other people smile. Everyone’s happy. It’s partly the conditioning I described above — avoiding frustration and conflict is a quite literally whole way of life — but it’s also something even more deeply rooted.

There are certainly everyday aspects of our work life — far from the absurdity of HubSpot — when this overwhelming need to be nice takes over. Whether it’s at the playground with our child or in the boardroom with professional adults, the risks of not being nice are often unthinkably high.

In Michael Fertik’s HBR piece The Problem With Being Too Nice, he takes a positive stance on niceness — as everyone should, really — but only when it’s coupled with an ability to make difficult and sometimes brutal choices. His most chilling example involves what he refers to as ‘polite deception’ — or letting someone who clearly isn’t correct believe that they are:

You’ve been in these brainstorming meetings — everyone is trying to hack a particular problem, and someone with power raises a ridiculous idea. Instead of people addressing it honestly, brows furrow, heads nod like puppets on strings, and noncommittal murmurs go around. No one feels empowered to gently suggest why that particular idea won’t work.”

Rather than risk hurting someone’s feelings and ‘being the asshole’ — or having our criticism be misconstrued as cruelty — we bury our challenges and disagreements, knowing full well that we’re about to go down the wrong path. We’re sensitive, but we’re not blind.

Of course, we don’t forget this irritation. Instead, everyone in the meeting looks to everyone else — anyone else — to be the voice of reason. We wait for the one person who intuitively understands the collective disagreement to call out the ridiculous idea, and rescue us from a terrible decision.

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Unfortunately, everyone has their reason to stand pat. Challenging your boss feels bad because they might fire you. Challenging your lowest-ranking employee feels bad because they might quit. Challenging your equal might leave you in decreased standing with your closest allies. In the end, nobody has a good reason to challenge: we all fear the frustration and hostility that await us on the other side. We’re all more comfortable playing nice.

But when these allowances begin to pile up and enough bad ideas have persevered, everyone on the team starts to take note. As Fertik tells us, you might end up with a culture of sustained irritation and mediocrity:

…you create a fertile atmosphere for contempt to spread. Imagine the reactions of your most talented, focused, and motivated employees as they watch lackluster coworkers get pass after pass. Anger and resentment take root, morale plummets, and turnover starts to go up, up, up.”

A group that plays the game of niceness and doesn’t challenge openly may feel fair and harmonious — but does it really feel like the communication of a high-performing team? Are we actually helping one another by being nice all the time? It may be time to consider that while people might want a comfortable, uber-friendly workplace, it might not always be what they need to be great at their job.

And unfortunately, getting away from a bad idea sometimes requires being a little mean, and putting aside your innate desire to be the nicest person on the planet. It means dropping an “Actually, I think that’s the wrong idea,” or maybe a “You’re not thinking about this in the right way.”

After all, good, progressive communication is full of what we might deem ‘unpleasant’ interactions. Debates, raised voices, outright disagreements: these are all important stations on the vast spectrum of communication. But when avoiding confrontation and frustration matters just as much to us as being nice, how are we supposed to stomach being meaner?

What It Means To Be Mean

Being mean has its terrible implications. Nobody wants to be the office loner who ruthlessly claws his way into captain’s chair of every meeting, and wantonly criticizes his coworkers at every turn.

But the reality is that the moment you’re not nice at work, you — and your coworkers — may feel that you’re being mean (this risk is doubly worse for women, but that’s another story). It’s an unfortunate embedded binary system in our offices: you’re either nice and encouraging, or mean and a challenging asshole.

It probably doesn’t help that characteristics like openness, extraversion, and self-esteem are often what defines the true psychopath. While those might sound like regular, constructive, and even desirable traits, they’re increasingly perceived as being part of a “highly selfish social strategy.”

It’s not hopeless, though. We just need to get better at disagreeing, and stepping away from the endless compulsion to be nice — whether we need to brutally reveal why we’re firing someone, or be more diligent about turning bad ideas into good ones.

Being Mean, The Nice Way

In 2008, Paul Graham published How to Disagree, a now-legendary essay on respectful ways to disagree. He describes a “disagreement hierarchy,” and at the bottom of the hierarchy — the least effective disagreement tools — are personal attacks, such as name calling and ad hominem insults.

These bottom arguments are, I believe, what most frustration-prone and criticism-sensitive people choose to hear whenever they’re disagreed with. Even the most perfectly thought out argument has the feeling of a personal attack, and our reaction causes the criticizer to think twice before challenging us again. Not great communication.

As Graham moves up the hierarchy, the more practical types of disagreements begin to emerge. Incidentally, these are the ones that require real thought and contemplation — not just blatant disagreement. Take refutation, which comes near the top:

The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. It’s also the rarest, because it’s the most work… You have to find a ‘smoking gun,’ a passage in whatever you disagree with that you feel is mistaken, and then explain why it’s mistaken.”

The point that Graham hits on is critical: the best and most effective criticism is often the kind that takes the most work. After all, being thoughtfully mean is about more than just being gentle — it’s about persuasion, too, and coming up with a compelling and agreeable counterpoint to soften the blow.

And most importantly, when we take the time to structure an argument properly, the ‘mean’ elements are usually extracted, anyway. Refutation, in all its circumspect glory, makes critiques feel appropriately impersonal and unpolitical — something presented for the good of the group, rather than for the self-concerned, maybe-psychopathic individual.

Well thought-out, constructed arguments just have the verity that personal insults don’t. “You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make,” says Graham. “In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.”

When We’re Too Nice, We All Lose

Someone is fired and given no cause, and they get a party. A bad idea in a meeting gets a free pass. Or maybe we’re bold enough to make a counterargument against that bad idea, but don’t disagree in a respectful manner. Consider the lingering effects of these examples on every individual involved.

When we choose to be relentlessly nice at work, we’re doing a disservice to the hardworking, professional people around us — people who deserve, above all else, to have an opportunity to be great at their job. While being less nice might feel like it always equates to being mean, it really equates to finding a way to respectfully help people do their job best: for their own personal benefit, and for the collective gain of the group.

Maybe that means being brutal, and maybe that means hurting someone’s feelings. Maybe that’s the only way to build a team that completely fulfills their potential.

As leaders, it’s the responsibility that we owe to everyone on our team: to help them take their career and their abilities to amazing places. This means real feedback, and real challenges — and that’s not always going to be a party. Sorry, HubSpot.

And just like the major league pitcher who gets sent down to the minors specifically to work on his fastball that isn’t quite fast enough, we all need to put ourselves in a position to demand that criticism. It may feel unnatural, and any criticism of our work might seem uncalled for and offensive: but we need to know.

We all need to be okay with not being nice. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck in the minor leagues forever.

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Images: Bully