Courage Over Fake Niceties

A malady across tech worldwide seems to be the sanctity of amicability, even at the cost of harming the work we came to do. Many people tend to avoid arguments, but I’m talking about something that takes this to a whole other level. We see leaders with nicely laid out copies of “Radical Candor” on their shelves and feedback that’s as bland as stale puffed rice cakes. The truth is, we’ve lost connection to our truth. Let’s set a course for fixing that.

Too Much Easing, Pleasing, and Appeasing

Companies that go on about their employees being one big happy family are either lying to themselves or the team. These sorts of phrases cultivate weird etiquette where we pad discussions and behavior so much there’s barely a thud, let alone the occasional point. We try to be “nice,” so we let inefficient processes prolong. You don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings and let them continue believing they might get promoted soon, even though you don’t believe they currently have what it takes. We see declining invites to meetings as rude, even though rudeness is expecting us to allocate time to sit in discussions that have no defined purpose or end result.

This is a problem that’s relevant throughout the ranks of your organization. Executives, managers, and individual contributors are all wasting their time and talents because of this overprotectiveness. It might be because someone feels that’s what they are supposed to do, lack of trust, conflict aversion, or other factors. Whatever the case, it costs everyone a fortune. That’s not how we grow the best teams.

Agitation Wanted

My main issue with this fake niceness isn’t the ingenuity itself. I don’t believe that’s a good way to live your life, but had it been all there was to it, I wouldn’t have written this article. My beef is with the wasted potential. When we are never faced with the truth, we won’t grow as fast as we could (or not at all). Chemistry shows that agitation can help crystals form faster. Biology studies have proven that suitable agitation can increase cells growth. Yes, being agitated can be a bit uncomfortable, but it is a necessity for excellence. Nothing novel grows out of indifference and lackadaisical workdays.

How many of these can you adopt yourself or teach your teammates?

  • Provide that candid feedback, don’t shy away.
  • Decline an invitation to a meeting you have no real reason to attend.
  • Make it acceptable to leave a meeting early if you realize you don’t need to be there. The other day I was telling a client about a successful trick I’ve seen where a team made up a safe word that someone can use to bail out of a meeting without any questions asked. You just say it, and people understand you got what you needed out of the meeting and continue without you—no offense taken.
  • Stop trying to lead by consensus. Design-by-committee isn’t how innovation happens.
  • Tell a direct report they’re not ready to become managers.
  • Have the courage to accept things aren’t working out for you, rather than staying in a leadership position for years lacking any momentum.

I’d rather work in an environment that drives me to improve constantly than rot away at a fancy office that doesn’t cultivate any progress. Faced with these two options, I don’t think there’s much of a choice which culture you should want to create in your team. Yes, everyone is different. No, candor doesn’t mean being rude. Some people might benefit from different ways of being given feedback, and some might not be in a great time to seek growth (e.g., clearly, you should cut some slack for those with current family issues). But the general direction should always be up—the slope might be adjusted per person.