Nice Teams Finish Last

Think your team is great because you all get along so well?  It could be a sign your team is under-performing.

As Brian Cole Miller describes in his new book Nice Teams Finish Last, niceness is often a cover for fear of straight talk, for low trust and low comfort, and you can boost performance by getting past nice.

Brian described his model — developed over his 25 years of working with and building teams — as a continuum between Nice, Bold, and Fierce.

In Brian’s book, Nice refers to “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.”  Don’t step on toes, don’t rock the boat.  It’s a kind of Nice that includes withholding honest feedback.
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Think of the last time you were in a team meeting and you’ve got a relevant thought and you’re about to share it, and you stop yourself — you bite your tongue — and you wait until after the meeting is over to share it with one of your closer co-workers.  That’s a perfect example of Nice undercutting the performance of the team.  I was afraid and I held back.  That’s the “Nice” scenario.

Contrast that with another scenario — where you’re meeting with Joe, and Joe interrupts you to say “that’s a stupid idea” — and because of the close trusting relationship you have with Joe, your immediate emotional response is to think “this is wonderful — either I’m going to find out that I didn’t express my idea very clearly, or else Joe just spotted a flaw I need to know about — I can’t wait to hear this.”  And you’re smiling, feeling good about Joe, and leaning in to listen deeply, and your relationship with Joe is getting stronger by the minute because Joe is giving you the benefit of his candid thinking, and he’s trusting you to handle it well, and take it in a positive way.  And you are.  Not only do you get Joe’s best thinking quickly and without hedging, the experience leads you to trust each other even more.  Call this the “Bold” scenario.

Then contrast both of these with a third scenario, where I’m meeting with Jim, and Jim interrupts me to say “you’re being stupid again” — and because this team is all about “brutal honesty” I fire back, or maybe I sit there and pretend to take it.  Maybe I fire back with some “honest” criticism of him.  Because we’re a low trust fake-candid team, I don’t really listen with an open mind to Jim — call this the “Fierce” scenario.

Here are the keys to moving off Nice and avoiding Fierce:
  • Assume Innocence — the other person has a positive intention
  • Build a Bridge — understand and acknowledge the other person’s position
  • Speak my Truth — be as specific as possible about the things you saw, while stating your perspective with courage
  • Invite a Dialog — having spoken your truth, truly and deeply listen with an open mind
Brian put this into a compact table that I partially reproduce here:

Types of Teams — Nice, Bold, and Fierce — and their Norms
Nice Bold Fierce
Motives Assume malice and
create workarounds
Assume innocence
and trust freely
Assume malice and
attack pre-emptively
Outreach Build bridge after
bridge; never cross
Build a bridge and
cross quickly
Build walls and prepare
attacks and defenses
Say something that might
be true, but don’t be too
attached to it
Say clearly what is
true for you, and
clarify your rationale
and motives
Say clearly what is
THE truth, and
bludgeon others into
hearing and agreeing
Dialog Smooth over, backtrack,
keep softening the
message so nobody
gets upset; manage
other people’s feelings
Invite dialog — actively
seek responses to
what was true for you;
listen for what is true

for others
Demand understanding.
Insist that others hear you

Source: Figure 4-3 (on p. 101) of Nice Teams Finish Last

As you see, the sweet spot of Bold, between Nice and Fierce, is both pleasanter and more functional.  Leaders are well advised to head in this direction.

To get to Bold, you need enough of a sense of trust and safety to be open.

There are clear warning signs of low-performing Nice teams:  “Venting” where we confess other people’s sins; “gripe sessions” where we say in private what we would not say in public; “workarounds” where we don’t want to confront someone about their behavior so we add steps to the process to avoid her.

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