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Does your organization have highly engaging meetings filled with interesting debates? OR, do you find people to be deferential and almost painfully agreeable? There are some debates happening on social media about being too nice, and whether it’s problem in the business world.  These two posts stood out on my LinkedIn feed: “The unintended consequences of a too-nice work culture” and “The dangers of being nice at work.”

While there is increasing support for the belief that positive emotions increase productivity, there are some words that shouldn’t enter business discussions. And nice might just be one. Consider the exchange between Henry, the young parson and Catherine Morland, the protagonist in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, published in 1803:

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

Respect and kindness are appropriate. They indicate a concern for others. But this wishy-washy niceness that often means we aren’t honest with one another is inappropriate for the business world where truth telling is essential.

This wishy-washy niceness that often means we aren’t honest with one another is inappropriate for the business world where truth telling is essential. Click To Tweet

I recently read Daniel Goleman’s book, Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence. Goleman is an internationally recognized psychologist and science journalist, who now serves as a co-director at the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations ( at Rutgers University. His seminal book, Artificial Intelligence, came out in 1995. While he continues to research and write on a variety of subjects, such as focus, meditation, creativity, transparency, and social and emotional learning, he’s now more interested in building social connections with the people around him.

Goleman’s book is not a clarion call for people to be nice. It’s a call for building stronger emotional intelligence. There is a difference. People with high emotional intelligence are not being too nice. They are quite capable of expressing opinions, debating issues, and providing constructive feedback. They just know how and when to do so effectively.

Emotional intelligence may be, to some extent, built in. Goleman talks about the difference between emotional intelligence and emotional competencies. The latter is definitely improvable. The former, less so. It’s sort of like innate spatial ability versus time spent learning geometry or architectural drawing.

So, if you have a great culture, but you are worried that people might be stifling their opinions and being too nice, OR, if you have a lousy culture and want some suggestions that might still work, try these tips:

Focus on running effective meetings.

Effective meetings provide more value than the sum of the labor costs of all attendees. Digest that thought for a bit and think about the last meeting you attended. Scan those in attendance and mentally add up the total labor costs in the room. Did the value of that meeting exceed your number? If so, congratulations! That was meeting time well spent. If not, read on for ways to improve your meetings.

The level of debate needed in your meeting will be determined by what you’re trying to accomplish. I’ve written before on how to run an effective meeting here.

Don’t call meetings when a face-to-face, one-on-one time is a better option. Know what is best handled in a team environment and what is best handled in other ways.

Start and stop on time. Eliminate side conversations and ensure that all conversation on the topic are directed to the whole group. Consider using a parking lot list to capture items which need further discussion and don’t relate to the meeting objectives.

Send an agenda out several days before a meeting to let attendees know the expectations.

Shy people, quiet people, younger people, or even seasoned executives may not always speak up when you think they might. A well-written agenda puts everyone on notice about what is going to be discussed, preparation that needs to occur before the meeting, and the organizer’s ideas about which subjects are open for significant conversation and which subjects simply represent a short summary report.

Here are a few suggestions that will make your agenda more effective:

  • Start with clearly stated objectives for the meeting. If you don’t plan to accomplish something at your meeting, cancel it.
  • Designate time blocks on your agenda. It helps attendees to understand that half of your meeting is for the purpose of discussing item #4, while item #6 is just a cursory review of the matter. And then, stick to your plan.
  • Understand the purpose of each conversation. Rambling chitchat with no focus doesn’t advance your project. Direct the conversation by planning ahead and knowing what you want to accomplish. Try including the questions that need to be answered under each agenda topic.

Take a break from talking and use sticky notes to write ideas down.

This suggestion is useful when you’re trying to expose a large number of ideas. If you’re brainstorming a subject, try having people note their ideas on sticky notes and post them. From there, you can organize the notes and identify the better ideas for further research.

The facilitator, and others in the room, should call on quieter people and ask for their thoughts.

Recognize that some people are simply more vocal than others. That’s okay. Encourage others to weigh in on the subject. If you’re dealing with someone who is particularly young, or shy – take them aside a day or so before a meeting and encourage them.

Pay attention to people’s body language. It may send signals about what people are thinking.

Recognize that words matter. Talk with your teams about the words they use.

I’ve been known to use the phrase: I would argue that…. But in reading George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book, Metaphors We Live By, I was struck by the authors’ discussion on the argument is war metaphor. They posit that in many cultures, including American, we use words that drive us into discussions that are set up to be won or lost by one side or the other.

They note these phrases (p. 4) common in the business lexicon:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.

They ask whether our discussions on the same issue would be different if we lived in a culture where arguments were thought of as a dance, where those at the table were performers and the goal is a delightful performance. How would it change our business conversations if no one had to win or lose, and instead it was about having a great performance? Would people stop worrying about being nice and start enjoying the performance?

Try using hats to role play, with everyone trying on other people’s perspectives.

While the hat may not be critical, it may help people step out of their own roles and take on someone else’s role.

Consider that you are working on a project to develop a new product line. You need to understand a variety of perspectives, including those of your sales team, your customer service team, the vendors who will be providing your raw materials, and even your competition. Try asking people to put on a hat that identifies the perspective they are taking on. Then engage in brainstorming discussions with everyone playing a different role from the ones that they normally assume.

Have you had success with other ideas? Share them in the comments.