Why it’s not kind to be nice in business and what to do about it

Picture of by Ros Jones

by Ros Jones

Business coach and author

There’s a difference isn’t there between being nice and being kind. The difference can make all the difference in business.

‘Nice’ is sticking our heads in the sand and pretending everything is OK when it clearly isn’t.

Being ‘kind’ on the other hand is addressing the problem with honesty, respect and empathy.

The problem is that we tend to default to being nice in order to keep the peace and avoid upsetting the apple cart. But the impact of a business owner being nice over time (instead of kind) can lead to a business where no disagreements are openly discussed, poor performance goes unchecked and disgruntled customers go elsewhere.

Picture this if you will.

You go into a restaurant. The waiter shows you to a table squeezed into a corner where there’s a draught, the table wobbles and you see someone else’s dropped food beneath your chair. You wait 20 minutes for someone to take your order and another 30 before the food arrives. You have to call the waiter to ask about your drinks order and the food is not to your liking.

You go to pay.

“Was everything OK?” asks the cashier.

“Lovely thank you,” you say.

That is being nice. It’s not being kind. It means you don’t care enough about the business to bother to take the time to be honest about your experience. The business therefore has no way of knowing changes are needed – until they notice that all their customers have gone elsewhere and it’s too late.

If you did care about the business you’d be polite but you’d be honest and tell the truth.

I use this scenario with clients when they tell me that they’re fed up with their people for whatever reason but acknowledge that they haven’t addressed the issues.

Do you care enough about your business to be kind rather than nice?

One of the reasons why we tend to be nice is our tendency to mind read. We are afraid of how people will react if we point out that something needs to change (what if they leave? What if they start to cry?) and we’re afraid people won’t like us if we tell them the truth.

Consider this: none of us can know what another person is thinking.

What if, instead, the kindness sparked a productive conversation? What if the outcome of you being kind rather than nice was that people appreciated your honesty, admitted they had a challenge in some area and asked for help to improve their skills.

Our job as the business leader is not to be liked but respected. When people in your team see that you’re not addressing problems that everyone else is aware of you will certainly not be respected. And it will very likely be the top performers who will leave.

How to be kind in business

We need to embrace the concept of “radical candour” by combining honesty with empathy, when giving feedback. This concept, from the book ‘Radical Candor’ by Kim Scott, encourages us to communicate openly and directly while considering the feelings and perspectives of others.

Radical candour involves giving feedback in a way that is both challenging and caring, looking to foster personal and professional growth. By insisting on honesty and empathy, radical candour helps individuals address issues effectively, build trust and promote a culture of continuous improvement and mutual respect in the workplace.

Practising radical candour takes work (like all good things) and needs thoughtful effort and self-awareness. The challenge is that many of us instinctively shy away from conflict, seeking harmony at all costs and avoiding discomfort.

4 ways to be kind in business

Here are 4 tactics I’d suggest that can help you cultivate a kinder culture to help move your business forward.

  1. Be clear about your business vision and values

Your business vision and your values really are at the root of everything in your business. If you haven’t yet defined these, now is the time to get this done.

Once you’re clear about your business values and everyone’s on board with them, everything is so much easier. For example, if one of your values is that you are “open and honest with ourselves and in all our communications”, then this clearly paves the way for kind conversations rather than untruthful “niceness”. Similarly, if your value is that you “practise effective and supportive teamwork”, you are also giving your team permission to call each other out on poor practice rather than avoiding it by being “nice”.

Make it a point to remind your people every day who you are as a team, what your collective goal is and why they were specifically recruited to help accomplish that goal.

  1. Facilitate open discussion

In team meetings, facilitate and encourage open dialogue. Allow everyone to have their say. Set the rules: it’s not about getting personal. People can disagree but we have to reach a decision, talk about any challenges, clear the air, and agree actions with timescales.

  1. Set time for meaningful meetings with your direct reports

This is the time to get a little personal, talk candidly about challenges, and clear the air.

  1. Actively seek feedback

Be sure your people are kind to you too as the boss, and not nice. Be direct and tell your team members that you’re looking for honest feedback. Encourage them to address their concerns directly and respectfully. If necessary, you can start difficult conversations by reminding them that this is a safe space with no judgment to help them feel more comfortable sharing.

As always, if you’d like to discuss any of the contents of this blog, just get in touch.

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