By Katie Bartlett
Radical Candor Content Specialist
A toxic workplace culture is the top reason people cite for leaving their jobs, and it was the main catalyst for the Great Resignation, a phenomenon that resulted in tens of millions of workers quitting in 2022. As companies scramble to reverse this trend, many are overcorrecting by shifting to an acute culture of niceness, according to Tessa West, a psychology professor at NYU.
In 2022, MIT Sloan Management Review defined what they call the “Toxic Five attributes — disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat and abusive.” Niceness is not on the list.
This begs the question — can a “nice” work culture be as toxic as an abusive one?
West, the author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What To Do About Them, defines the overly nice culture as “one in which given the choice between honest, constructive, useful feedback, or ‘nice’ feedback that is full of vague platitudes, the cultural norm is to give the latter.”
When bosses are too invested in everyone getting along they also fail to encourage the people on their team to criticize one another other for fear of sowing discord. They create the kind of work environment where being ‘nice’ is prioritized at the expense of critiquing and therefore improving actual performance.” — Kim Scott, Radical Candor
At Radical Candor, we call this — being “nice” but ultimately not kind — Ruinous Empathy. And it can be more damaging than Obnoxious Aggression — brutal honesty and acting like a jerk, and Manipulative Insincerity — backstabbing, political and passive-aggressive behavior.
Ruinous Empathy happens when people want to avoid the tension or discomfort that can occur when delivering feedback that might make someone feel mad, sad or bad in the short term, but will help them succeed in the long run. So they avoid conflict and don’t address areas that need improvement.
When the person not getting the guidance they need to learn, grow and succeed finally realizes what’s going on, it can feel like having the rug ripped out from under them.
It’s not uncommon for leaders who misunderstand the causes of a problem (in this case, an overly-toxic workplace) to embrace a solution that swings too far in the opposite direction. They mistake feedback itself as the toxic element, rather than the true culprit: feedback obnoxiously delivered by bosses who don’t care personally about their employees.
Ruinous Empathy affects companies across every industry. Radical Candor author and co-founder Kim Scott reports that nearly every company she’s worked with identifies Ruinous Empathy as their biggest problem.
Though it may be well-intentioned, Ruinous Empathy is not a solution to a toxic workplace. In fact, it can be equally frustrating and harmful to the growth of employees and companies alike because managers and colleagues are failing to deliver feedback people need to improve and repeat success.
The Negative Impact of a Culture of Niceness at Work
“When bosses are too invested in everyone getting along they also fail to encourage the people on their team to criticize one another other for fear of sowing discord. They create the kind of work environment where being ‘nice’ is prioritized at the expense of critiquing and therefore improving actual performance,” writes Scott in Radical Candor.
When people don’t receive the feedback that they need to hear, they aren’t given the opportunity to improve, and they negatively affect the work of everyone around them. In the short term, both boss and employee may feel more comfortable ignoring it. But, as mistakes are repeated, relationships sour and company-wide unhappiness spreads.
“[Ruinous Empathy] is not only bad for the low-performing employee but also bad for all of their teammates and the company as a whole,” says Scott. “A team that has to spend a bunch of time reviewing or redoing a low-performing person’s work is not going to be able to achieve results.”
This short-term comfort can have far-reaching and devastating long-term consequences. And, it fails to identify and address why someone might be struggling in their role.
“[A lack of feedback] sort of feels like a dead man walking, and that does not feel psychologically safe,” says Scott. “Even if you’re receiving bad news, you’re hearing what you need to know. You’re better off knowing than not knowing.”
Ultimately, Ruinous Empathy prevents employees from reaching their full potential. The bottom line is that decisions about retention and promotion are based on performance. “All of the nice feedback in the world won’t protect you from that reality,” says West.
Attempts to protect people from the discomfort of difficult feedback often spiral outward.
Scott recalled a story that one CEO shared with her: He had to fire an employee, someone he cared a lot about. He spent a long time thinking about how to fire him in the nicest possible way.
The result was that the employee came out of the meeting unaware that he had been fired. He showed up to work the next day, unaware too that the CEO had sent out an email to the company sharing news of his departure.
Scott’s story is an extreme example of the consequences of Ruinous Empathy. It was unbearably awkward for everyone at the company who saw the employee the next day, and even worse for the employee himself.
Meanwhile, the CEO had to fire him, this time more clearly and certainly more painfully than if he’d gotten it right the first time.
No fun for anyone.
Signs of Ruinous Empathy In Your Workplace
“If people are afraid to say what they really think — it’s considered countercultural to do so the company’s culture likely has a Ruinous Empathy problem,” West says.
This can manifest in performance reviews: Mysteries or surprises in performance reviews are among the biggest signs that a company is struggling with Ruinous Empathy, Scott and West agree.
Feedback, in such cases, is often similar, general, vague and always positive for every employee, no matter their performance. It’s the grown-up version of the everyone-gets-a-trophy culture in kids’ sports.
Scott says performance development conversations should be happening with every employee regularly so they have the opportunity to fix problems when they happen and aren’t blindsided during performance reviews.
“A performance review process without regular development conversations is like capping a rotten tooth. It will just rot faster and more painfully,” Scott wrote in Radical Candor.
West says that most employees want to be distinguished from each other and to have a structure of reward based on performance. What’s more, studies confirm that employees actually do want clear and actionable feedback so they know how to repeat success and avoid failure.
Thus, the ruinously empathetic approach actually runs counter to employee preferences, harming company culture.
“[Uniformly positive feedback] might feel good at the time, but it erodes trust and the feeling of procedural justice, especially among those who are looking to improve,” says West. “And top [performing employees] don’t want to see [employees not meeting expectations] getting the same feedback as them.”
Frustration from high-performing employees is another clear sign of Ruinous Empathy. This is often caught in employee engagement surveys, through questions about the company’s management of low-performing employees.
Turning a Culture of Niceness into a Culture of Compassionate Candor
So how do you develop a culture of feedback that’s not too nice, not too obnoxious, but just right?
Radical Candor focuses on managers asking for feedback before they give it as well as demonstrating that they care personally about their employees as human beings as a precursor to offering feedback.
This includes learning about their aspirations and goals through Career Conversations and regular one-on-one meetings, demonstrating an interest in helping them achieve them, and making clear that feedback goes both ways. Caring personally builds a foundation of trust that allows a culture of feedback.
Scott says to begin by helping your team develop a shared understanding of the core principles of Radical Candor, caring personally and challenging directly. When people understand what good feedback looks like and how to give it, they will begin to embrace it. And this benefits everyone on a team.
When working to develop a culture of feedback, West says that employers need to ask themselves a few key questions: What is your plan for making sure employees know where they stand? How can you create a culture where they feel comfortable bringing up small things before they get out of hand?
You can begin by using our free Radical Candor learning guides to ensure you’re creating a culture of psychological safety and regularly offering your team feedback that’s kind, clear, specific and sincere.
West recommends starting small, offering feedback about something relatively benign. “Wet your feet wet, build the skill, grow it,” she says. “No one runs a marathon who’s been sitting on the couch for six months.”
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