Paul Oestreicher
Paul Oestreicher

“It’s nice to be nice to the nice.” That’s what the Frank Burns character said during an awkward social encounter in a 1974 episode of M*A*S*H. Even though a hypocritical, less than competent TV doctor delivered the line nearly 50 years ago, it still makes sense. Right?

According to The Hazards of a “Nice” Company Culture by Timothy R. Clark, “niceness hides dysfunction.” The author says, “What’s touted as niceness is often nothing more than the veneer of civility.” He sees this as a danger to organizations because “in a nice culture, there’s pressure to go along to get along,” which “can lead to chronic indecisiveness.”

Yes, sugarcoating a message can make it incomprehensible. And feeding staff a steady diet of feedback sandwiches—criticism surrounded by praise—can obliterate the message, not just kill the taste of bad news.

We’ve all seen it at some point; people want to be liked and will do almost anything to avoid conflict. I’ve written about this before—we shouldn’t seek conflict, but we need the courage to address it. Clark makes the case that niceness squashes “intellectual honesty, candid feedback, and tough questions.” And if we don’t address issues in a timely manner, we create a classic boiling-over situation where “people wait until a problem becomes too big to ignore.”

The need to modify our behavior—no matter how you characterize it—has never been bigger. We’re in a world of never-ending political fights and rants by the billions on social media; it’s a non-stop, global food fight. Meanness—provocation and threats emanating from all parts and levels of society—is a real threat to order and safety. But if Clark thinks niceness carries its own hazards, where do we turn?

While some might call it semantic hair-splitting, the answer could be “kindness.” If being nice is conflict avoidance, then kindness is the ability to “channel and manage the tension.” It’s being frank and forthright while being respectful and courteous. In isolation, niceness misses the chance to ensure accountability. Kindness doesn’t have to be tough love, though. Compassion and humanity—not being self-serving and expedient—are part of the delineation between the two constructs.

I usually find mutual exclusivity to be an irrational choice. But let’s consider that it’s nicer to be kind.


Paul Oestreicher, Ph.D., is a recognized expert in strategic communication, public affairs and issues, crisis and reputation management. He is the author of Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table and the blog C-O-I-N-S: Communication Opinions, Insights and New Strategies. Follow him @pauloestreicher.