How can you avoid ‘nice team’ syndrome?
We’ve observed, in many organisations and senior teams we work with, those meetings where everyone was pleasant and agreeable and following the meeting real opinions emerged. Sound familiar? It’s easy to want to point the finger of blame at the individuals in these teams for pretending to be ‘nice’ during the meeting, however this is a key opportunity for any team to pause and reflect on the culture. A culture where psychological safety, inclusion, challenge and collaboration may not feel available for everyone. Perhaps the individuals who challenge leaders or the status quo don’t fare so well, so it’s easier to agree and comply than to lose favour.
As with toxic positivity, toxic niceness or toxic agreeableness creates a culture of inauthenticity. A perception that is very surface level that the team are united, supportive of each other and aligned towards the team purpose. We see this can often emerge when teams are transitioning from the polite ‘forming’ stages that happen with any team’s development (Bruce Tuckman’s work on this is iconic) but they never have the appropriate support or awareness of how to openly and supportively navigate the inevitable next step ‘storming’ phase nor see it as an essential and healthy part of team development and growth.
It’s clear that ‘nice’ teams aren’t high performing. But they can perform to some extent and therefore challenging the team’s culture often gets left until the team hits a crisis point. So, what are the risks of being in a nice team and how can we look out for them before they reach crisis?
The risks of being in a nice team
- Poor innovation or new ideas – instead of risking standing out, getting it wrong and being judged, nice team members may minimise their personal risk by keeping ideas safe and aligned to leadership views or other dominant team members
- Lack of diverse perspectives and views – instead of hearing multiple perspectives, nice teams work towards consensus and assimilation with the most influential voices
- Poor decision making – linked to a lack of diversity of voices and thoughts being shared, it’s no surprise that poor decisions will get made as they are based on only a few voices, with minimal challenges
- Losing great talent – it will come to a point in every nice team, that if you don’t feel valued, seen or heard that you will want to go somewhere to have more of a meaningful impact
- Business performance – ultimately, ‘nice’ teams have a detrimental impact on overall business performance.
“Armouring up and protecting our egos rarely leads to productive, kind, and respectful conversations. Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”
Avoiding ‘nice’ team syndrome
Building psychological safety is key
The safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to collaborate, and to take on new roles and challenges. We know healthy conflict is essential for high performing teams, but teams cannot get there without a foundation of trust and vulnerability that is continually created and supported. So here are 3 key levers to help you turn your ‘nice’ team into an honest and connected team.
Build the team
Working on team effectiveness and team dynamics has a profound impact on how teams communicate, build trust, inclusion, and safety, as well as creating a space to incubate scenarios for the team to deal with conflict and challenge in a productive way. Other practical and positive outcomes from team development can be the co-creation of a team canvas/charter that reinforces supportive and inclusive behaviour and challenges ‘nice’ behaviours. Or simply deciding to create new team norms, such as kicking off team meetings by sharing risks taken or mistakes made, starting with the leader.
Create clarity and lead by example
Ambiguity and uncertainty can breed ‘niceness,’ so it is important for leaders to be clear in their expectations not just on the team’s objectives and results but how the team should treat each other and what is expected during meetings. Also, it is time to reflect on the behaviours you, as a leader, are role modelling. What behaviours are you positively reinforcing in the team and what are you not? Are you personally demonstrating vulnerability, fallibility and showing people that honesty is rewarded? Make it clear that everyone’s contribution is needed and valued, request and celebrate challenging opinions and the courage to not have all the answers.
Manage performance issues
Once you communicate your new team expectations, its important you act on this and hold people accountable for any infringements. When you do not address a performance problem, you silently condone it. Hold people accountable privately and respectfully. Those who do not respect these new boundaries have a choice to either adopt the new norm or find a new opportunity.
Nice teams need a change in culture and to do this we need braver leaders who can work towards fostering more courageous cultures. Honest and open conversations are critical, as is clarity to reinforce and build team trust and safety. As Brené Brown says in her book ‘Dare to Lead’… “Armouring up and protecting our egos rarely leads to productive, kind, and respectful conversations. Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” So, what can you do to move your team culture from ‘nice’ to ‘clear and courageous’?