NICE Teams Finish Last

by Brian Cole Miller

"If you can’t say something NICE, don’t say anything at all!" That’s my mother talking. And every other adult from my childhood. And your childhood. Growing up, we were taught to keep our mouths shut. Don’t talk back. Don’t rock the boat.

At work, a similar message is reinforced: never give real feedback. Avoid conflict. Sugarcoat bad news. Don’t be disagreeable. All this in the name of being NICE. Because when you’re NICE, people get along.  No one has hurt feelings. Everyone is happy. And in the end, you get to sit in a circle with the other NICE people and sing "Kumbaya."

The problem is, it’s just not true. Eager, ambitious teams that play too NICEly together don’t reach their full potential. They’re productive, but often just marginally.  hey don’t consistently exceed expectations, or blow their competition out of the water. That’s because NICE gets in the way of radical innovation, incredible operating efficiency and phenomenal customer service.

This is particularly challenging for service teams. All day long they’re told to be NICE to customers, often having to bite their tongues (appropriately so). Unfortunately, that makes it difficult for them to switch gears with their co-workers.  They bring NICE to team meetings, inhibiting their ability to operate as the high performing team they can and want to be.

NICE Gets in the Way of Successful Service Teams

Why? Every successful team passes through four stages of team development: forming, storming, norming and performing. In forming, members work independently as they figure out how they fit in.  But conflict is bound to happen: storming. On the other side of storming is norming, where members resolve differences and normalize how they’ll operate together. Finally, in performing, they become highly interdependent and highly productive. They work through conflict efficiently, respectfully, and effectively.

Most NICE teams think they are in performing, when really they are stuck at the doors of storming.  When conflict arises, they work to quickly get rid of it. This may require them to step into storming, but all they want is harmony (even if it’s superficial) so they hastily retreat to the safe and familiar territory of forming without real resolution. Instead, they create a work-around, shut someone down or otherwise compromise the quality of their work.

Exploring the Opposite of NICE:  The FIERCE Team

So if being NICE isn’t the answer, what is? Being mean? Not exactly. In a team setting the opposite of NICE is FIERCE. And at first glance, FIERCE may look like an appealing alternative to NICE.  They are direct. Important feedback is shared.  Ideas and opinions are challenged. But their singular focus is on the task, so people’s needs and feelings take a back seat. They miss the difference between healthy debate and harmful conflict.

So NICE teams are too NICE. FIERCE teams are too FIERCE. The sweet spot in the middle is BOLD. BOLD teams realize it’s not just what they do that’s important, but how they do it, too. What they do gives short term success. How they do it sets them up for future success. BOLD teams balance NICE’s compassion, consideration and caring with FIERCE’s courage, risk taking and honesty.

This balance is delicate, and it comes by living four BOLD Principles. Principles that will help a service team override their tendency to be NICE and transform them into a more effective BOLD team.

Be BOLD:  Live the Four BOLD Principles

Principle 1: Assume Innocence. It’s easy to make assumptions about someone’s underlying intentions. It takes effort to withhold judgment. It takes patience and trust to assume innocence, and approach others from a place of curiosity, rather than accusation.

For example, Carmen is offended by something Scott did. "Why would he do that?" she wonders. Then she answers, "He’s so lazy. And now he thinks we’re going to jump in and help with the call volume just because he’s behind on his documentation?!" Her next interaction with Scott can’t go well. If she’s NICE, resentment and distrust will build as she whitewashes trouble. If she’s FIERCE, she’ll blast Scott.

If BOLD, she does neither. She suspends judgment until she gets the facts from Scott. Meanwhile, she trusts that Scott did whatever he did because, from his perspective, it was the most appropriate thing to do. Until she understands better, she refrains from taking inappropriate action.

Principle 2: Build a Bridge. Confrontations feel threatening when they come without warning.  People feel attacked and get defensive. So once you assume innocence, initiate a meaningful conversation by building a bridge first. Seek to understand their perspective before you share yours. Then use that understanding to introduce yours.

Carmen may ask Scott, "Will you tell me more about how this happened, Scott?"

Principle 3: Speak Your Truth. Notice the word your. There is no absolute truth in human interactions.  Carmen has hers. Scott has his. Each believes their perspective to be truth. Each is right: they each have a different truth.

Carman may say, "Scott, you didn’t complete your documentation on time. And you didn’t warn us that this would mean you wouldn’t take calls this afternoon. This made it difficult for us to follow our normal break schedule and also increased our call abandonment rate." See how this is Carmen’s truth, and she says it without labeling Scott or condemning him.

Principle 4:  Invite Dialogue. True resolution can only come when there’s dialogue. Sharing your truth is only half of the story. Invite your teammate to do the same.

Carmen may say, "Scott, how do you see this?"

Only when you hear your teammate’s truth can you have a meaningful conversation and eventually reach an efficient, effective and lasting resolution. NICE teams don’t get there because team members back off as before they share truth. FIERCE teams don’t get there because team members insist on being heard first (so no one is heard). BOLD teams encourage curiosity and understanding, not abandonment or insistence.

So if you can’t say anything NICE, fine! Say something BOLD, and help move your team to the success you know you're capable of!

Brian Cole Miller is the principal and founder of Working Solutions, a company dedicated to helping front line managers be more competent and confident in their jobs. He is also the author of several books for busy managers.

To learn more about BOLD teams, read Nice Teams Finish Last, by Brian Cole Miller published by AMACOM. It is available on .

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