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The Catastrophic Consequences of a "Nice" Culture

In this episode, Tim and Junior will discuss the catastrophic consequences of a "nice" culture. The intention behind cultivating a nice culture is often genuine. Leaders believe they are doing a good thing that will motivate people and create inclusion. However, it often has the opposite effect, resulting in a lack of honest communication, intellectual bravery, innovation, and accountability.

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Episode Show Notes

In this episode, Tim and Junior will discuss the catastrophic consequences of a "nice" culture. The intention behind cultivating a nice culture is often genuine. Leaders believe they are doing a good thing that will motivate people and create inclusion. However, it often has the opposite effect, resulting in a lack of honest communication, intellectual bravery, innovation, and accountability.

(11:01) We want to be polite, courteous, and kind, but still be willing to confront hard truths. "Nice gets dangerous very quickly, Junior, because people will say, 'Well, I don't want to hurt your feelings.' Okay, that could sometimes be the motivation, but more often it's that I'm actually trying to protect myself. So now in the room, we have shifted from playing offense to playing defense."

(26:20) Niceness over time creates inertia in the organization. "The organization loses its ability to act preemptively because we're preoccupied with being nice. So, we can't address issues in a timely manner. We don't have, as I said, the tolerance for candor. And so, we wait, procrastinate, and fail to act. Meanwhile, a problem or a threat or a danger grows and compounds. Pretty soon, we have a crisis."

(40:04) How do we combat the consequences of a "nice" culture? To combat a "nice" culture, you have to be willing to do these four things: 1) clarify expectations and performance standards, 2) publicly challenge the status quo, even if you helped create it, 3) provide air cover for people who speak up, and 4) confront performance problems immediately.

Important Links
The Hazards of a “Nice” Company Culture - HBR Article
Why Some Leaders are Afraid of Psychological Safety - Podcast
Diagnose the Levels of Inclusion and Innovation in Your Organization

Episode Transcript


0:00:02.5 Producer: Welcome back, Culture by Design listeners, it's Freddie, one of the producers of the podcast. And in today's episode, Tim and Junior, and will be talking about the catastrophic consequences of a nice culture. This is a deeper dive into a Harvard Business Review article that Tim wrote last year, which we will include in today's episode show notes. The intention behind cultivating a nice culture is often genuine, but it can have the opposite effect, and the result is a lack of honest communication, intellectual bravery, innovation, and accountability. Today, Tim and Junior will talk about this and how to combat these types of cultural problems. As always, today's show notes can be found at Thanks again for listening. Thank you for your reviews. Enjoy today's episode on the catastrophic consequences of a nice culture.


0:01:00.5 Junior: Welcome back, everyone to Culture by Design, I'm Junior, and I'm here with Dr. Tim Clark. And today, we'll be discussing the catastrophic consequences of a nice culture. Tim published some of the ideas from today's episode in the Harvard Business Review. If you haven't checked out that article, we'll link it in the show notes. If you have read it, buckle up because today we're gonna dive much deeper and take another angle. And I'm gonna start off by asking Tim a question, Tim, have you ever attended a meeting that wasn't the meeting? 

0:01:30.0 Tim: Meeting that wasn't the meeting? Let me think about that for a minute. Well, actually, I don't need a minute. [laughter] How many times? The answer is, how many times? I don't know how many times, many times, and I'm sure that everyone can relate with that.

0:01:44.1 Junior: Meetings that aren't meetings are symptoms of what we're going to be talking about today and are one of the catastrophic consequences of a nice culture in too many companies. There's the appearance of harmony and alignment, but in reality, there's often dysfunction that's simmering beneath the surface. And sometimes the intention behind a nice culture is genuine, sometimes leaders believe that they're doing a good thing and that that will motivate people and create inclusion, but it often has the opposite effect. And it results in a lack of honest communication, lack of intellectual bravery, innovation, accountability. So today we're going to talk about why organizations do this because so many of them do. We're gonna talk about some of the symptoms and then four tactics to combat toxic niceness and improve culture. Tim, what do you think about today's episode? 

0:02:35.5 Tim: It's gonna be fantastic. It's one of the hardest things for humans to do is to address issues and topics and discussions and decisions and courses of action with candor, but doing it in a productive way and not slipping into this pattern of toxic niceness. And so I think everyone's gonna relate with this topic.

0:03:01.6 Junior: Yeah. I like it because it's a true... Its application is both professional and personal, spans wide breadth. So we wanna start off with a story today, I love this story. It's the late 1990s and Pixar is at work on the sequel to none other than Toy Story.

0:03:21.9 Tim: Oh, yeah.

0:03:22.7 Junior: And they are under intense pressure to deliver a film that would meet the expectations of fans and critics and audiences everywhere. Toy Story was a massive hit and the follow-up had to be just as good. And the deadline at this point was approaching and something wasn't right. And so during a meeting, a group of creatives gathered to review the progress. They're looking at Toy Story two, some of the more finished scenes maybe for the first time. And what they saw was not a masterpiece, it was very far from the innovative and engaging film that they had envisioned. The characters were lacking depth, the story did not have the magic that the original did. And you can imagine in this room the first time that they're watching this film, the first time they're watching a few of these scenes, I don't know exactly how it went, but you can envision what it must have been like, you're kinda looking around wondering, do you like it? 

0:04:24.5 Tim: [chuckle] Yeah.

0:04:25.7 Junior: Do you like it? You ever been in a movie doing that? 

0:04:27.8 Tim: You're trying to read facial expressions and body language because you're not loving it, but are you the only one? 

0:04:35.5 Junior: Yeah, and who wants to go first after something like that? 

0:04:38.8 Tim: Right.

0:04:39.8 Junior: Right? [laughter] What are you gonna say? 

0:04:40.7 Tim: I can't imagine. You're just looking around, okay, what do we do now? 

0:04:46.7 Junior: Alright. So, the atmosphere of this room had to be tense, you can imagine. But instead of tiptoeing around the issue, the members of this group spoke openly, they spoke honestly about their concerns. And from what we know about this story, there was no hierarchy or ego in that room, just a burning passion to create a great film. So they took a step back and re-evaluated the core pieces of this story. And you have to also understand that the deadline's looming, it's not like you have a massive plush timeline to get this thing done. And so even more incentive to say, "Oh, it's great, ship it". And so, this is a very daunting task, high pressure.

0:05:31.5 Tim: Well, Junior, let's just go back and think about the expectations. The first film was an incredible success.

0:05:37.4 Junior: Ground breaking.

0:05:38.1 Tim: This is Woody, this is Buzz Lightyear, this was an unbelievably successful film.

0:05:43.7 Junior: Yeah.

0:05:44.3 Tim: And so, the expectations are, we're gonna make a sequel. Now, most sequels are not that great, but they wanted to get somewhere close, I think.

0:05:52.7 Junior: Yeah. They wanted to surpass. I think that most sequels do, they often fall short as we know.

0:05:58.5 Tim: Yeah, they do. Yeah, they do.

0:06:00.7 Junior: But most of you have probably seen that film and many of you haven't. And if you have, and it was a very, very popular film, that first one. So in an unprecedented move, to my understanding, the team comes together, they re-write the entire story in a matter of months. They had unyielding dedication to quality storytelling, which wasn't there in the first place, and they transformed that film into something that not only met, but exceeded expectations. It went on to become a massive success, both critically and commercially, and it really solidified Pixar's reputation as absolute powerhouse in animation. And so this turnaround is what we're going to talk about today, it's remarkable. And it can be attributed back to Pixar's culture and some of the decisions that they made early on regarding open communication, candid feedback and respect for the creative process. So, the results of this film, listen to some of these numbers, it grossed $497 million worldwide. So late '90s half a billion dollars. It was the highest grossing animated film that year and the third highest grossing film overall, which is incredible for an animated film. 8.6 Rotten Tomatoes, won a Golden Globe for best motion picture, and as we joked about, it's often cited as one of the rare sequels that equaled or even surpassed the original film. We'll leave that up to you. That's up for debate.

0:07:29.6 Tim: It is pretty amazing.

0:07:30.9 Junior: It's amazing.

0:07:31.8 Tim: So Junior, maybe a way to frame this is that they had it, they had a choice, and they chose to disrupt themselves late in the game.

0:07:42.8 Junior: They did.

0:07:43.9 Tim: Very difficult to do.

0:07:45.6 Junior: I referred to that group of people in the room while I was telling this story is just a group, but this group has a name, I wanna spoil it for you, but we'll get into it now. So this is called Pixar's Braintrust. This was the group of individuals in that room watching that film that decided to revamp the whole thing. And this was originally created by Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, and Steve Jobs, executives at Pixar. They wanted to create a culture that would allow for the production of ground-breaking animated films. We could talk about the creation of this group for a long time, but think about the foresight and the understanding that those leaders had about the role that culture plays in the outcome of a film. Very interesting. So they establish the Braintrust among a group of experienced filmmakers who would meet regularly and provide feedback on ongoing projects. And it was based on a few fundamental principles, honesty, no sugar-coating, no hierarchy that all opinions are equally valuable regardless of role or seniority. They wanted to focus on problem-solving, so they wanna identify and solve problems, not impose solutions or dictate changes.

0:09:00.7 Junior: And finally they wanted to respect the creative process, which I think is really neat. Creativity is a complex, often unpredictable process, and members respect the need for experimentation and failure. So that's part of the expectation of viewing films, reviewing scenes, is that there will be experimentation and failure. Really, really cool.

0:09:23.9 Tim: I guess Junior, the central assumption, in my mind, when I think of what they did, I have to conclude that they felt that unless they were explicit about the ground rules, about the terms of engagement, that they would not be able to make this happen. And so as you just laid out, the principles are very explicit. This is the way that we're going to work together, these are the rules of the road, these are the ground rules, these are the terms of engagement. Unless you're really explicit about it, there's not a good chance that that's what's gonna happen, that those will become the actual norms of the team.

0:10:00.4 Junior: And presumably this was not their first meeting, and you would assume that they had gone through many meetings like this meeting and had become comfortable over time with that type of candid feedback. Without that, if you would have just thrown a group of people in the room and said, "Hey, tell us what you think, give us your open honest feedback," which is what many organizations do, it probably would not have happened the way that it did. So the most critical piece of this story is that juncture, that fork in the road where it's go, no go, are we going to move with it? Are we going to scrap it? What are we gonna do? And you can see that that fork in the road would have led to very different places. We have the outcome that we know about, hindsight 20/20, it was an awesome decision. But at the time, it may not have seemed so obvious, they would not have been able to see or predict the revenues of either path in that fork, and they probably would have been very tempted to just move on. So we're going to talk about niceness, artificial niceness.

0:11:01.6 Junior: We're gonna talk about the catastrophic consequences of a nice culture and what could have happened if in that meeting, the Braintrust could have operated or would have operated based on the principles that many or most organizations employ. I won't say most, but many of artificial niceness. So maybe we could start off, Tim, on talking about nice. What is nice? How do we view this word? 

0:11:24.9 Tim: Nice means that you are pleasant and you are agreeable and your are polite, and you have good manners, and your courteous and you're non-confrontational. How about those for a few words? 

0:11:40.9 Junior: Love it. You go out of your way to avoid upsetting people, offending people, you also lack genuine concern. Now, some people may say, "Well, all else equal, you would wanna be nice." But this phrase, "Oh, you're just being nice," have you ever heard that before? "Oh, you're just being nice. Oh, they're just being nice." Implicit in that statement means that is some superficiality, it makes me think about external behaviors, the difference between nice and kind, or nice and respectful, or nice and loving. Really interesting comparison. So if each of you that's listening, think about that. What does nice mean to you? How does nice show up if someone's just being nice? 

0:12:27.8 Tim: Nice gets dangerous very quickly, Junior because people will say, "Well, I don't wanna hurt your feelings." Okay, that could sometimes be the motivation, more often it's I'm actually trying to protect myself. So now in the room, we have shifted from playing offense to playing defense. And that could have happened in the room at Pixar if everyone would have looked at each other and said, "This is good enough, let's go." But we're gonna talk about the consequences that come from that point when we engage in what can become toxic and catastrophic niceness, where we get to a point where it is superficial collegiality. It is the veneer of civility where we paint a thin layer of nice over a thick layer of fear. This is a pathology, and this is a very serious pathology that can lead to unbelievably costly, unintended consequences.

0:13:34.9 Junior: And you might think, how could nice get to that point? How could nice be so damaging? How could the consequences of nice be catastrophic? And I think that there is some ambiguity in niceness, and that's what makes it difficult because you might say, "Well, don't you wanna be nice? Wouldn't you rather me be nice than not?"

0:13:57.5 Tim: Right. Let's ask another question too, Junior. So for the listeners out there, I want you to think about this. When was the last time you went to a meeting, as Junior asked earlier, but the meeting wasn't really the meeting? People did not discuss the issues on their merits, and so they waited until after the meeting and they had their side bar conversations and they held their kangaroo courts because that's what we do. If we can't discuss the issues in the meeting, what does that lead to? When was the last time you witnessed that or were a part of that? What happened? Doesn't this pattern happen with alarming frequency across organizations? It does, that's why we're addressing it today.

0:14:39.5 Junior: And not to belabor the point, but to drill down a little bit further on what nice means and what it doesn't. Part of the invitation to each of us today, myself included, is to figure out what our North Star is, not that it's singular, I guess, but the direction that we wanna move, the qualities that we want to be synonymous with us, with our names, with our reputation. And if nice is on the pedestal that you're looking to, you might wanna swap it out for some other words. Think about the difference between nice and kind, and maybe ask yourself this question, to what degree would you sacrifice in order to help someone? And ask yourself, does that correlate with niceness? Does that correlate with kindness? Does it correlate with love? I think the latter two, for sure, but niceness, no, not necessarily. Maybe you look at it this way, what other attributes can live together with nice? Can you be nice and manipulative? Yes, you can. Can you be nice and insincere? Yes, you can. So evidently, and there are host of others. Niceness isn't valuable or desirable in isolation. This niceness that we're talking about, as Tim said, can become a cultural norm, but more than just that, it can become very serious and it can become a common pathology. There's nothing benign about niceness, even though at its face, you may think that niceness has everything to do with being benign, this is really interesting paradox.

0:16:09.7 Tim: Now, Junior, you can turn... Think about a meeting, it's a leadership meeting and you're taking everyone's time. Niceness, that toxic or superficial collegiality that niceness can turn that meeting into a charade. This cute nod to psychological safety, but it's not the real thing. The costs are staggering. We'll talk more about it as we go.

0:16:35.9 Junior: Yeah, so the question becomes, if the costs are staggering, then why do we do it? And we're gonna talk about four reasons why. We'll talk about some symptoms, and then we're gonna give some time to some solutions. So why do organizations pursue niceness? They might do it, one reason to avoid conflict and gain approval. And I think oftentimes we fall into this, or we look at this is as through a lens that's false binary, we can either be nice or we can share our opinion and offend someone. [chuckle]

0:17:09.6 Tim: It's one or the other. [laughter]

0:17:10.8 Junior: It's one or the other.

0:17:11.9 Tim: Yeah.

0:17:12.8 Junior: And we have to assume that there's another option, which is that we can be kind, we can be considerate and respectful and also share our opinion, share what we think. There is a world in which we can do that, and if we think that there's not a world in which we can do that, then wow, we're more pathological than maybe we thought.

0:17:33.4 Tim: Yeah, if you can't handle that, if you can't achieve that kind of what tolerance for candor, really, if the room can't tolerate that, if the people can't tolerate that, how are you possibly going to solicit the high-quality feedback, conduct the high quality analysis, and then exercise great judgment, make the decisions, pursue the courses of action that you need to do? 

0:17:58.8 Junior: No. And if all you're doing is avoiding conflict and behaving in a way that gains approval, are you really being you? Are you really being true to who you are? Not that you're gonna parade around and just shout from the rooftops everything that you think, that's not what we're talking about, but you can be tactful and create environments in which these things are tolerated and encouraged, which is the means for true conversation. Otherwise, what's going on is not actually conversation, it's not a real authentic dialogue, as Tim mentioned before, it's a charade. So that's one reason, to avoid conflict. Next is to replace genuine inclusion. Niceness and inclusion are not synonymous, so that's something that's very important to understand. If we conflate those two things and think that by being nice, we are being inclusive as consequence, we're wrong. But organizations do this very frequently where they think, oh, our inclusion initiative is going to be based on being nice to each other, that gets dangerous very quickly.

0:19:01.0 Tim: Well, niceness is not a proxy for inclusion, especially if it's superficial. If it's not genuine, which niceness has the bad reputation of being, by the way. But we do it in the name often of being humane and trying to treat people in the right way. And yet we do just the opposite, ironically.

0:19:26.1 Junior: Reason three, to show exaggerated deference to the chain of command. Now, one of those sentences that you wrote, Tim, that I really like, it's a little bit different. You say, "If you don't provoke the ire of those in power, you've essentially added to your job security". I thought that was so interesting because how many things have we said or not said, done or not done to do that? And we're not doing it explicitly, but somewhere in there is, I don't want to provoke this person or this person that might be above me. I need to stick around. I need to be here. It's important that I keep my job. And implicit in that self-talk is this idea that our job security is based on whether or not we share our true feelings, which is really interesting, and many people feel that way. The risk of sharing candid feedback, the risk of speaking our mind is often just that it can work all the way up to job security. And there are those that supersede even that, right? 

0:20:29.2 Tim: Yeah, it's true. So nice becomes a form of self-preservation. Isn't that interesting? Let's keep going with it though. So Junior, if we're playing defense and using niceness, and it's a form of self-preservation and loss avoidance, then it becomes a way to mask, it becomes a way to armor. It becomes a way to modulate. It becomes a way to code switch. And the more we do that, the more dangerous it becomes to ourselves and to the others that are with us in the room.

0:21:07.1 Junior: So true. Four, to motivate people instead of holding them accountable. So this, again, another thing that I like, love the way you put it, is to hug each other and then not follow through on our commitments. I think it's really, really fascinating to think about that visual is like, "Oh, thank you very much. You know, I appreciate you. Thanks for all you're doing. I'll absolutely do that". And then we don't follow through. So it's a charade, it's an act. And I'm gonna show you, well, I think I'm showing you that. Yeah, I'm paying attention, I care. Absolutely. Yes sir. No sir. But then we don't follow through. So those are four reasons that organizations pursue niceness. And it's not that they're writing these down and saying, these are our objectives, but they're falling into these buckets inadvertently as they're trying to pursue niceness, and sometimes through pure motive, like, oh yeah, we're gonna be a nice organization. It's a nice place to be. And unwittingly they're walking down this path that can be very treacherous and dangerous to the organization and the people in it.

0:22:10.4 Tim: Junior, before we go on, let's talk about who is susceptible to this, because there are certain sectors of society that are more susceptible than others, and even, I guess maybe even some geographies based on subculture. I was in Minnesota not too long ago, and people said, oh, we do Minnesota nice here. I thought that was pretty interesting. So I don't know if they have a susceptibility, but I do know that there are certain sectors in society that have a susceptibility to this. And I'll name five. So if you're in one of these sectors, then this may get your attention. Number one, healthcare. Number two, education. Number three, government. Number four, nonprofit organizations. Number five, voluntary associations. Those five segments of society, organizations in those segments are more susceptible to develop a dysfunctional and toxic nice culture. Why? Because they begin with a noble institutional mission.

0:23:19.1 Tim: Think about what organizations in these five sectors do, they try to do good in the world. So they begin with a noble institutional mission. Well, why is that a problem? Because an environment of collegiality usually emanates from that kind of mission. If you begin with a noble mission, collegiality comes out of that. So a benevolent purpose tends to foster a benevolent culture, and a benevolent culture tends to spawn niceness, right? So you can see that this is really true. For example, I worked with a healthcare organization and part of their mission emphasized preserving patient safety. Well, ironically, that same sense of compassion for patients mutated into a nice culture that drove truth telling, where? Underground. Underground. So do you see how catastrophic that becomes when truth telling is driven underground? That's just one example. But I just wanna point out that we have certain sectors of society that are susceptible to niceness.

0:24:31.1 Junior: And what are some of the behaviors that characterize those sectors? Here are a few that I can think of. People always saying, yes, I see that a lot in those sectors. We're trying to be helpful, right? We have benevolent mission, as you mentioned. And yeah. Yes, we can do that. Absolutely. I can do that for you. Yes, yes, yes. And in reality, we can't always say yes. There's a lot of people pleasing. There's fear of vulnerability. I'm not gonna share how I really feel about that. I'm just gonna say yes. And yep, thumbs up. Great. There's repressing emotions, perpetual, unrealistic expectations. I see that as a symptom all the time. A lack of assertiveness and some resentment that can start to build up. So there are these back channel conversations that are going on all the time, that are the real meetings that are happening outside of the conference room, but in the hallway and in the water cooler as it were.

0:25:26.6 Junior: And all of these things, these symptoms have consequences. And there are five that we're going to talk about today, the dangerous downsides of nice cultures. And the first one is crisis activation. Now, this happens when people wait to intervene. Our intervention is this huge lag, and it becomes forced, our intervention because it's too big to ignore. We can't hide it anymore, or something happened and it's too huge. We cannot cover it up. We can't speak it into the closet. It is out. It's there for everyone to see, and we are forced to deal with it. And what we know about those types of problems is they're almost impossible to deal with when they get to that point. Or if you do deal with them and you can, the consequences are far-reaching and catastrophic.

0:26:20.5 Tim: Oh, that's amazing, Junior. So, let's just think about this a little deeper. So niceness over time creates an inertia in the organization. The organization loses its ability to act preemptively, because we're preoccupied with being nice. And so, we can't address issues in a timely manner. We don't have, as I said, the tolerance for candor. And so we wait and we procrastinate and we fail to act. And meanwhile a problem or a threat or a danger grows and compounds. And then pretty soon we have a crisis.

0:27:03.6 Junior: Think about all the scandals that make headlines. Think about all the scandals that have made headlines just in the last year or two. Those always have antecedent. They always have warning signs and things that happened previously that if addressed, would've prevented the larger issue. And that can become terribly normal at organizations and sweeping things under the rug. We did a webinar about physical safety and psychological safety and time to intervention. If you don't have psychological safety, if it's too... If it's artificially nice, you won't have early intervention. And eventually you're met with these types of problems.

0:27:48.5 Tim: Should we talk about an example? 

0:27:51.2 Junior: Sure.

0:27:51.6 Tim: This is a tough one, but it's real. And I think it's quite instructive. So how is it possible, for example, that it took the University of Southern California more than 25 years to acknowledge and act on the sexual abuse claims against a Dr. George Tyndall, a campus gynecologist? This issue eventually culminated in a staggering $1.1 billion settlement.

0:28:24.5 Junior: B, B billion.

0:28:26.3 Tim: Billion. But the most alarming part of this is that it took 25 years, and there were complaints made. There were allegations made over and over and over and over during a 25 year period. It's astonishing. If that's not inertia, I don't know what is, if that's not a failure to launch and to act on a problem, I don't know what is. It's incredible how so many institutions, it takes a crisis to get their attention. They have all kinds of distant, early warning signs, all kinds of data coming in, and they become willfully blind and they're just not acting on it.

0:29:11.7 Junior: That's a tragic example.

0:29:12.7 Tim: It is.

0:29:16.1 Junior: But it can happen. It happens all too often. And there are instances, there are things like that that are happening now that haven't become catastrophic, but are happening nonetheless, that we'll probably hear about next year or the year after that, or in 25.

0:29:30.2 Tim: That's really true.

0:29:31.6 Junior: Next, we have choked innovation. I really like this one. Innovation by definition is a change to the status quo. That's what it is. If that's not true, then it's not innovation. It requires divergent thinking. So if you're too concerned about being nice, about being taken the wrong way, are you going to speak up and say, "Hey, I think we could do this differently". Or, "Hey, I have this idea", or, "Hey, there was a problem here that I think we could change". You're not gonna do any of those things. You're gonna keep to yourself. You're gonna play nice and you're just gonna keep on going forward and you're not gonna rock the boat. And if enough people do that, and that becomes the norm of the organization, then we get into this big rut, the status quo becomes not just a rut, but a trench. And getting out of that is really, really difficult to do. And it becomes increasingly difficult to do over time because all of those decisions compound and they roll up into the broader culture. And people that come into the organization learn very quickly, oh, we don't do that here. We just do what's in front of us. We do our job, we put our heads down, and that's that. And before you know it, you're blockbuster.

0:30:36.5 Tim: Oh, That's right. Well, you've got yourself an echo chamber, don't you? 

0:30:40.9 Junior: Yeah. Yeah.

0:30:42.2 Tim: You're suppressing dissent when you need to be rewarding dissent. So your norm becomes the exact opposite of what it needs to be in order to innovate. And so, your innovation, as you said, Junior, it becomes choked. You're choking it off because you've created and you're reinforcing a norm that works in the opposite direction.

0:31:07.8 Junior: Yep. And to be clear, the blockbuster joke is just that I'm under no impression that we could just go fix it on a dime. Those are complex problems. But it is interesting. If you look at the graveyard of organizations over time, they are littered with the remains of these cultures, let's put it that way.

0:31:24.6 Tim: Well, it's true, Junior. And if you did a root cause analysis and you trace the origin and you went even further, you would find at some point an intellectual muzzle in that organization where people could not, they were not willing. The costs were too high to really weigh in with options, with divergent thinking, with dissent, with that intellectual friction. They were not doing that.

0:31:49.8 Junior: Yeah. At some point, each of those organizations had their own Toy Story too, and said, don't worry about it. Ship it.

0:31:55.3 Tim: Just Ship it. It's good enough.

0:31:57.7 Junior: Yeah, it's fine. It's fine. Yeah. You do that enough times and you'll find yourself in the same group. So, Number three, bleeding talent. This one fascinating to me because sometimes, well, we talk about hiring mistakes, and one of them is hiring for charisma. And sometimes there's an overemphasis on likability or charisma or niceness instead of competence. If you're nicer, you'll get hired. If you're nicer, you'll get promoted. And so, if we overemphasize likability or niceness as we're hiring, as we're promoting, eventually the talent that is competent will opt out and say, you know, I'm obviously, I can't challenge the status quo. I can't perform to my real true ability. I can't contribute the way I'd like to, so you know, I'm gonna go somewhere else. And the interesting thing about that is those at the top of the organization, at least in terms of competence, are those that have the most option.

0:33:01.6 Junior: And so, if they have more options, then they'll leave, those without options It would follow aren't the most competent. Now, that's a generalization, but it's often true. And so, which employees are you going to retain? Those that are perfectly content, not speaking up, just doing their job every day, showing up, not making a fuss and just moving forward. But those A players who really want to contribute, they're gonna wanna rock the boat all day long and say, "Hey, you know, we wanna do this differently.

0:33:33.1 Tim: That's a good point.

0:33:34.7 Junior: I expect better of us, of me, of the team. You know, we can solve this problem. We can go out here, we can do this". And if you get your head chopped off by being one of those people, the other people that are like that are gonna take notice. And they're gonna say, okay, I guess that that's not welcome here. So I'm gonna do one of two things. I'm going to keep my foot off the pedal and my own personal growth and just I'm gonna become lackadaisical, or I'm gonna leave and find somewhere that I can really put the pedal down.

0:34:03.6 Tim: Junior, we've talked about this a lot of times, but think about the dynamic range of talent. And let's just think about the difference between A players and B players. And one of the things that you learn very quickly is that if you have an A player, 100 B players will not equal an A player. Why? Because the A player contributes in a qualitatively superior way. It's not additive. It's not additive. Well, why does that matter? Because if you have a toxic, nice culture, the A players are not going to stick around. They come to play. They are A players. They come with the obligation of descent already in them. It's their operating assumption. They come to challenge the status quo. They come to create, to innovate, to solve difficult problems. This is their mindset. This is their desire. This is why they signed up. And so if they come into a culture that that is characterized by superficial collegiality and the veneer of civility, that kind of niceness, they're not gonna hang around. They're not gonna hang around.

0:35:22.7 Junior: That bleeds into the next one, which is number four, low velocity decision making. So there's a real effect on an organization's speed because we move the decision making model to consensus, or it starts leaning that way. And maybe eventually we start to live there and we're looking around and saying, "Okay, do I have you on board? And you and you, and okay, we got 10 people. I need 10 yeses". And it takes forever if you ever reach resolution at all. And while you are trying to achieve consensus, the market is moving and the market's ability to move is much greater than your ability to achieve consensus. And if that's true, I'm very confident that it is, then you will lose over a long enough time horizon because it either is at parody or it's above. And if it's not at parody or above and you're below that line, that line becomes increasingly divergent.

0:36:21.2 Junior: And the gap between you and the market just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And eventually that comes all the way back down to dollars. And eventually the market says, we don't care about you anymore. And let's say that you're one of those five types of organizations, some of them strive for profitability. While all of them should strive, some of them don't care that much. You'll become inefficient. If the market isn't dictating your survival, you will become inefficient. And the problems that you're trying to solve, let's say that it's government or nonprofit, you will move much slower than you otherwise would have, and you're not going to end up solving the problems that you set out to solve, which I think is so fascinating. So the operational efficiencies in the innovation are still relevant to you, even though the market's not dictating your share price. So, I don't buy like, "Oh, well, we're just doing good over here and it doesn't matter how fast we go". Well, it depends. If you're really intent on making a difference and solving problems, then these things are important to you too.

0:37:29.0 Tim: Well, you're exactly right, the more dynamic the market that you plan, the more dangerous, chronic indecisiveness becomes. How do you argue that. Standing still is strategic, suicide, you're losing your competitive advantage, so endless rounds of discussion in the pursuit of consensus, it's not going to work.

0:37:56.9 Junior: No. Okay, next and finally, we have learned helplessness, this one is a pathology in so many ways, organizationally and personally. This is where we throw our hands up and we keep quiet, and we learn that behavior because that's what the organization incentivizes. If we wanna keep our job and we wanna stick around, then that's what we do, and the organization adapts to that over time, it gets perpetuated, it becomes the norm, it rolls up into the culture, and pretty soon if there's a problem over there to our left, to our right, I don't know, I don't know.

0:38:34.9 Junior: Maybe someone else will grab that and run with it, or maybe it's not a big issue, and we become helpless through learned behavior, it's learned behavior, and the organization incentivizes that. So, if that happens, that's one of the most catastrophic consequences of a nice culture, because the organization then by necessity loses its adaptive capacity. See, if you think about learned helplessness, then what's the opposite of that? It's being useful, helpful being adaptable, going and solving those problems through initiative and not just standing still.

0:39:11.8 Tim: Well, Junior, that's an interesting... It's a concept that comes, that we're borrowing, we're taking from Psychology, right? 

0:39:17.3 Junior: Yep.

0:39:18.1 Tim: Learned helplessness. Well, what's the opposite? Probably self-efficacy. Belief in your ability to do things, to accomplish things. And what we're doing is we're taking this concept which really usually applies to the individual as the unit of analysis, and we're saying, we're going to apply it to the organization, and the organization can take on the same pattern of learned helplessness in sort of aggregate composite form, which you can. And we've seen it, it's incredible. Now, the opposite is also true, where the organization develops more self-efficacy as an institution, and that's really what we're talking about, and niceness has a huge impact on which direction you go.

0:40:04.1 Junior: So those are the consequences, the catastrophic consequences of a nice culture. But we won't leave you there, we will get into some of the solution, how we combat this niceness. And this is where a lot of the practicality lies. The first thing that we would suggest is to clarify, communicate expectations, standard of performance all the way to meeting types. Being explicit about those things is always helpful.

0:40:32.3 Junior: I try not to say always, very often. I can't think of a scenario in which this is it true in always scenario clarifying expectations, standards of performance and meeting types. The meeting type one I'll take on just as a real practical note, is this an informational meeting? Is this discovery-based meeting, is this an alignment meeting? I don't always do this, but it's something frankly I would need to work on more, and I see its value in setting the expectation upfront about what we're trying to achieve during our time together. "Hey, I know we have 30 minutes. By the end of this meeting. I would like to have done this". Setting that up on the front end of any meeting is so helpful.

0:41:16.4 Tim: Well, Junior, if it's a regularly-scheduled meeting, then perhaps those who attend already know what kind of meeting it is, but if you're calling an ad-hoc meeting, that's not going to be clear and you want to be explicit about that up front. This is why we're getting together. This is why we're taking the time. So, A, have an agenda, B, be explicit about the kind of meeting that you're going to have.

0:41:40.5 Junior: Yep, I will say though, it is helpful, let's say, I've seen this before, even in my own life, where you have this perpetual meeting... It's a recurring meeting, Tuesday at 3:00 PM, and you've had this meeting every Tuesday for seven years, and no one's asked the question, "What is this meeting for?"


0:41:58.9 Junior: Right? 

0:42:00.0 Tim: Yeah, that's a problem.

0:42:01.6 Junior: Just going back and saying, "No, this is actually what we wanna achieve in this meeting," even if it's underneath the umbrella of the meeting type, you already know what type of meeting it is, but here is what we hope to achieve, clarifying those expectations and the meeting type can help. So, how is this combating niceness? How would clarifying expectations combat niceness? I think it helps in many ways, one of which is on the accountability front, because now we understand, "Okay, here is the barometer of performance, and here is where we can take issue with these grounds?" We laid out these expectations, this is what we were thinking, if that's ambiguous, then someone can say, "Oh yeah, well, you're just rocking the boat, it's not good enough for you or whatever the case may be." And it comes across as, "Oh, you're not being nice."

0:42:49.8 Junior: Instead of now we agreed to these expectations, this is the standard of performance that we both thought would be great, considering where we are and what we're doing, and the standard is met, it's not met, it just helps everyone and take some of that interpersonal weirdness out of the equation.

0:43:06.9 Tim: Yeah, well, Junior to summarize it, if there's emotional danger, generally, you will not find intellectual honesty. And to your point, if you're explicit about the expectations, but not just that, you're modeling that yourself and you're rewarding that yourself, then you've got a good chance of establishing that as the norm. Now, if you just put out the expectations, communicate the expectations, but you yourself are not modeling that behavior and rewarding that behavior, it's not gonna happen, right? All bets are off. We don't pass go. We're not gonna get there. No traction.

0:43:45.9 Junior: Yep. Number two, publicly challenge the status quo you helped create. That qualifier is important. You helped create. It's important to be able to look at your own work and in a public forum, say, "You know what, we need to change this," or, "This is not up to standard,". And when you can do that and show other people that there is no pride of authorship or not an unhealthy amount of pride of authorship, then it shows everyone else, "Okay, that's fair game." Looks like we can give productive criticism to anything, to anything that this person owns, that this person owns, and it shows that the objective supersedes that person's pride of authorship.

0:44:30.2 Tim: That's right.

0:44:30.4 Junior: And it shows that they're not aiming at the quality of their personal authorship, but rather the outcome of whatever it is we're trying to achieve as a group, so it puts that on a pedestal higher than their ego, which I think is what makes that so powerful, super-impose is that objective. And says, "Okay, this is what we're aiming at. It's not about me, it's about our ability to collaborate as a team to create the best outcome, regardless of where that authorship comes from or came from."

0:45:02.4 Tim: Junior, I saw an executive challenged in a meeting, and the executive was responsible, I guess, more or less for the status quo for creating the status quo, for putting it in place, and someone took a shot at it in the meeting, and the executive responded with, "Ouch, that really hurt," acknowledging, I don't know, the bruised ego to a certain extent. But then goes on to say, "But that's okay, keep going. This is what we need. This is what we need to hear. This is the feedback that we need. This is the challenge that we need. So keep going."

0:45:38.6 Tim: So publicly and openly acknowledging, I guess the shot to the ego that it was, and maybe a little bit of emotional pain, but yet... "Okay, I acknowledge but keep going, please." So as you said, the objective is higher, or the higher objective is that we're trying to do the right thing in the organization and it's not about me, so that's a way of demonstrating that vulnerability. People, they can relate with, that they can empathize with you and how you feel, but then if you keep going and say, "No, but we're really here to accomplish this objective of making things better." Wow. That's empowering, that's powerful.

0:46:24.5 Junior: Number three, provide air cover for candor. Walk us through this one, Tim air cover for candor.

0:46:31.5 Tim: It's related to what I just said, air cover means that you're protected for the candor that you give. If there isn't some promise of protection, chances are people will opt out, they will continue to be nice, they will perpetuate the norm of being nice. They need some reassurance that they will be protected when they deliver that candor, [chuckle] so you've gotta provide the air cover, that's really what the metaphor is here.

0:47:01.5 Junior: Yeah, there is another metaphor is, it's the candor protection program, like to witness protection program.

0:47:06.9 Tim: That's right.

0:47:08.7 Junior: Yeah. You're gonna come in, "You're gonna give your candid feedback and we are gonna protect you in that act."

0:47:14.1 Tim: You've gotta remove the risk of ridicule in the room. You've got a de-stigmatized descent. If that's not happening, then again, what do you get? You get nice.

0:47:28.9 Junior: Yeah. You as a leader, have a special role as arbiter in certain conversations, and you have a real opportunity to provide that air cover. If someone takes a shot that's unnecessary or not helpful, you gotta police that, and that's an important part of your responsibility in stewardship, and that shows everyone else, "Okay, if I go out on a limb, this person's got my back and they're gonna protect some of that vulnerable behavior."

0:47:53.1 Junior: If you do that, eventually that will move from top down to peer to peer, and people will do that for each other, and that's what we want, that's what we wanna achieve long-term. Number four, confront performance problems immediately. This is particularly problematic in a few of the sectors that we talked about previously, where those performance problems get protected for whatever reason, and that can happen for myriad reasons, depending on where we are and what we're talking about, but it's important that those things not get covered up, not get pushed down the road, not get ignored. If those things happen, then the problems themselves will continue to happen again, and sometimes you can find yourself in a situation where the problem gets bigger and bigger, and we get into the catastrophe issue that we talked about before. So, that needs to be quick and swift and clear, and it needs to be acknowledged from both ends. If we don't do that, it can be a big problem.

0:48:54.0 Tim: It does, and it needs to be... Most of the time, it should be done privately and always respectfully, but if you sit on it, if you don't act, then you're condoning it and you're normalizing it and then it becomes an even bigger problem.

0:49:11.3 Junior: I'll say to this point that the way that this often has to show up in organizations is the way that they manage out certain people, and if there's not an outflow of under-performing people as it relates to general performance and their role or cultural performance, then there's no stream of data for people to look through to see what's unacceptable and what's not tolerated at the organization. And so, if the organization can't point to a group of people that have been managed out over time for not meeting these types of expectations, you can assume that those people or that type of person is still in the organization causing problems and you just may or may not know about it.

0:49:56.6 Junior: And so that's a difficult thing for organizations, and it's a difficult thing to let people go. But it sends a message to the rest of the organization about what acceptable behavior looks like. What do we promote, what do we discourage, what do we not allow? If we say this often, but organizations will get what they tolerate, and if you tolerate this type of toxicity or other types of toxicity, then that's what you'll get, and it will become really difficult if you accept that for 10 years and then try and change on a dime, the organization is gonna push back on you.

0:50:33.1 Tim: Very true, very true Junior.

0:50:35.0 Junior: Alright. We've covered a lot of ground today. I really enjoyed our conversation. To wrap up, to sum up, be careful with nice. Sometimes, nice can have catastrophic consequences. This is true professionally. It's true personally. If we really have the best interest of our organization, our personal networks, people we work with at heart will remember that constructive conflict is necessary for thriving cultures and relationships. If we don't have that type of productive conversation and dialogue and a bit of friction, good intellectual friction, then we won't be able to solve the problems that we aspire to solve, and the organization will become less efficient and sometimes devolve into some of the scenarios that we've talked about. Tim, what are your thoughts as we wrap up today? 

0:51:27.9 Tim: Well, I just wanna share a quote as we wrap up today. In his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King Junior said, "There is a type of constructive non-violent tension which is necessary for growth." That is so true, that's what we're talking about. [chuckle]

0:51:49.8 Junior: That's precisely.

0:51:50.3 Tim: We're talking about putting in place the norms that would allow us to have the constructive non-violent tension which is necessary for growth. We don't want niceness, we don't want superficial collegiality. We don't want the veneer of civility, we don't want some cute nod to psychological safety. We want a dynamic environment in which we can engage in rigorous debate in which we maintain respect for each other, and those are the terms of engagement that we always use and we dry out and we unleash the full creative potential of the people that are in the room.

0:52:31.6 Junior: So true. That quote is amazing. So thank you everyone for your time and attention. We very much appreciate your listenership, we are thankful for the work you do in the world, and we're here to support you. If you liked today's episode, there's another one that I wanna call out, why some leaders are afraid of psychological safety? That ties very much into today's episode, I think you'll like it. We'll link it in the show notes.

0:52:53.2 Junior: And as always, we appreciate your likes, your reviews, your shares, so if you found value in today's episode, leave us a review and share the episode with someone you know. Take care everyone, we will see you next time. Bye-bye.


0:53:14.7 Producer: Hey, Culture by Design listeners, you made it to the end of today's episode. Thank you again for listening and for making culture something that you do by design and not by default. If you've enjoyed today's episode please be so kind to leave us a review. It helps us reach a wider audience and accomplish our mission of influencing the world for good at scale. Today's episode show notes and other relevant resources related to today's topic can be found at And with that, we'll see you next episode.


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