Toxic culture is having a moment in the UK media spotlight. Dominic Cummings and others are giving headline-grabbing evidence in the UK Covid enquiry, which portrays No.10 Downing Street as a cesspit of misogyny, profanity and incompetence that has led, it is claimed, to an increased death toll during the pandemic.
Suella Braverman has just been ousted from the role of Home Secretary, allegedly in part due to acts of insubordination, and The Red Arrows are dealing with the fallout of a damming report that has found employees felt unsafe in an environment described as “An unacceptable culture of sexism, harassment and bullying was allowed to flourish at the RAF’s Red Arrows display team”.
Back on the ground, Louis van Gaal is a notoriously aggressive football manager. He is reportedly often verbally or physically aggressive with his players. And yet he is described as “one of the greatest and most decorated managers in world football”, having won 20 major honours in his managerial career.
So, what’s going on?
What happens when business leaders set rigid or unrealistically high expectations for a team? Work becomes plagued by a constant sense of urgency, pressure, anxiety, overwork, and even hostile behaviour. In other words, work becomes toxic. If you’ve worked in a place like this, you can attest that it’s draining. But what’s on the other side of the spectrum? In short, is it possible to set the bar too low?
In a nutshell, yes. Enter the “nice” culture, otherwise known as “the culture of mediocrity”.
The Culture of Mediocrity
Here, there is a distinct absence of pressure. Everyone is so concerned about getting along and avoiding uncomfortable interactions that leaders don’t hold employees accountable, and people fear speaking up or taking risks.
Everyone is, in a word, nice. Or should we say — too nice.
I have seen through numerous teams we have worked with that when nice gets taken to an extreme, it can unbalance a culture, impacting a single team, an entire department, or even spreading to the whole organisation. Much less talked about is the problem with nice. Like toxic cultures, nice can be just as damaging to a business.
Of course, employees and leaders should be polite, civil, and respectful of each other. A genuinely healthy culture requires a degree of kindness, courtesy, and professionalism. Getting the balance right is the tricky part.
In any business, unpleasant situations will inevitably arise. They come in the form of difficult decisions, issues, and topics that must be discussed and made. Not everyone will always feel happy, understand, or agree on decisions made within a business. Some decisions may inevitably have adverse effects on individuals and teams.
To that end, niceness becomes problematic when these situations are chronically avoided to the point that being nice undermines a business’s growth, goals, and results.
How do these cultures form?
Like most troubled cultures, the nice culture doesn’t grow overnight. Or because leaders deliberately set out for this to happen. Small decisions accumulate over time to form these environments. Results, relationships, rewards, and risk all play a part in shaping a corporate culture. Getting the balance wrong can lead to toxicity, mediocrity, anarchy or bureaucracy.
We have worked with teams who suffer from all of these ailments simultaneously. There is no quick and easy fix. Taking a team to the pub on Friday won’t fix this and can make things worse. The notion that culture stems from tangible things like social events and fun perks is flawed. In reality, an organisation’s culture is a product of its people’s belief systems — especially leaders.
Cultures of mediocrity (aka the “nice” culture) grow when two specific beliefs are at play:
- Relationships are more important than results.
- It’s more important to follow the rules than to take risks.
When these beliefs are present to an extreme degree, you may notice some of these actions emerging in your workplace.
- Leaders fail to hold people accountable.
- People avoid challenging the status quo.
- Mistakes and toxic actions are being swept under the rug.
- Employees get rewarded for underperforming as long as they are liked.
The motive behind these behaviours is often genuine: wanting to be relational, considerate, or to prevent conflict.
This becomes a problem as employees start to mirror each other’s behaviour. In turn, it leads to a collective lack of action. Trust and respect slowly erode as a result. In other words, in a misguided effort to build close relationships and maintain harmony, leaders can inadvertently create a culture f of toxicity. And businesses can suffer severe consequences as a result.
Consequences of a Nice Culture
The main consequence of a nice culture is a lack of clarity over expectations and standards. When we start working with an organisation there are a number of red flags we look for:
- Low performance & bad behaviour
- Little feedback & lack of recognition
- Low motivation
- Boredom & talent loss
- Aimless overwork
- Slowed decision-making & stifled innovation
Working in a nice culture can feel just as unsettling as a toxic workplace. But what’s the solution? Is there any way to avoid sliding into the “too nice” side of the spectrum?
How to strike a balance: Radical Candour
Instead of aiming for rainbows in the workplace, the most successful business leaders I work with cultivate a culture of honest, rigorous consistency. The best leaders I see aim to be nice and honest, nice and rigorous, nice and consistent. A leader needs to be both. We call it Radical Candour.
What is Radical Candour?
Put simply, Radical Candour is the practice of getting, giving and encouraging praise and criticism at work.
Leaders should aim to be nice, but they can be professional, courteous, respectful and give candid feedback simultaneously. These things are not mutually exclusive.
So how can a business further prevent unbalancing its culture:
- Clear accountability: Actions are the best way to show a person you believe in their potential. Good managers do this by holding people to high standards. This means establishing clear, ambitious goals and giving constructive feedback. Doing this shows that managers respect their employees and believe in their abilities. Even if these talks can sometimes be tough, they give rise to mutual trust and respect.
- Management accountability: Managers are the gatekeepers of performance. As such, managers who do a great job at managing performance (in a way that is candid, honest, and respectful) should be celebrated and rewarded. Likewise, those managers who struggle with holding people accountable should be addressed.
- Promote candid feedback: The best-selling book Good to Great describes how a cultural willingness to “confront the brutal facts” has long been a key marker of a successful business. It means leaders are willing to face reality, even when it is challenging. When leaders uphold those standards, everyone else feels safe to follow suit. Nice cultures are guilty of tiptoeing around hard truths. When this is the norm, companies risk undermining their potential.
Harmony vs. conflict?
It’s admirable for leaders to strive for harmony and to care about strong relationships. Nobody can condone the problems that the Red Arrows have been found guilty of. Boris Johnson’s COVID team is being held up as an example of the worst type of team dynamic.
But, on the other hand, the need to be nice can go too far — when it puts organisational performance at risk. The answer lies in being able to hold people accountable in a respectful way. Get this balance right, and you should be able to set high standards for a team while remaining flexible and realistic and not micromanaging people to the brink of exhaustion.
By striving to build a balanced environment, everyone will benefit in extension, and so will the organisation. Radical Candour is the answer.