Have you ever attended a meeting that wasn’t the meeting? Everyone was pleasant and agreeable in the room, but then filed off to engage in back-channel conversations and hold kangaroo courts. This kind of charade is one of the many symptoms of a “nice” culture. But what’s touted as niceness is often nothing more than the veneer of civility, a cute nod to psychological safety, a hologram that falsely signals inclusion, collaboration, and high performance. In many of these cultures, leaders have simply spread a thin layer of politeness over a thick layer of fear. There is the appearance of harmony and alignment but in reality there’s often dysfunction simmering beneath the surface that results in a lack of honest communication, intellectual bravery, innovation, and accountability.
The intention behind cultivating a nice culture is often genuine. In my experience, for example, it’s common for organizations with a noble institutional mission, such as educational institutions, healthcare organizations, government bodies, non-profits, and voluntary associations to cultivate an environment of collegiality that emanates from their mission. A benevolent purpose tends to foster a benevolent culture, and a benevolent culture tends to spawn niceness. For example, I worked with a biotechnology firm that had a deeply instilled mission to preserve patient safety. Ironically, that sense of compassion for patients mutated into a nice culture that drove truth-telling underground.