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Stop Being Nice at Work

Companies that give employees the tools to speak their minds reap big rewards.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Most people have an inherent desire to avoid conflict. This is especially true in the workplace where we can’t necessarily change who we interact with day in and day out. If you have a squabble with a coworker, you have to see him tomorrow. And the next day and the day after that. As such, if you disagree with someone, it’s easier to pretend you don’t than to take the risk of making waves.

When people stop speaking up to point out poor practices that add complexity to the workplace, it creates major organizational problems. The avoidance of damaging someone’s ego should never trump progress. While it can be uncomfortable in the short term to challenge widely accepted ideas and practices, it leads to honest discussions about what’s really important and opens the door for improvement. The following best practices will help you and your colleagues knock niceties off their pedestal.

Move from one way to two. When you foster a feedback-driven culture, employees will come to expect coworkers sharing their thoughts. Rather than having people give one-way status updates, encourage a collaborative dialogue where everyone feels comfortable responding to the information that’s given to them and asking probing questions. Starting sentences with phrases like “How might we…?” or “In what other ways could we…?” opens the door for people to share their thoughts and results in more productive conversations. Creating an atmosphere where your coworkers can voice opinions is simpler when you don’t have to constantly worry about hurting someone’s ego.

Ask killer questions. By questioning why things are done a certain way, it encourages people to question longstanding beliefs and opens the door to new possibilities. Knowing the best questions to ask can make a difference in getting the best answers. Encourage your team to ask “killer queries,” open-ended questions that lead to creative, groundbreaking solutions. Here are some examples:

• What is an outrageous idea that could get us fired, but could increase sales exponentially?

• What activities do we spend most of our time doing and wouldn’t make a difference if we eliminated them?

• What do we wish we could do at work that we can’t right now? What would happen if we did it?

Asking provocative questions allows teams to think differently, and move forward with more radical ideas.

Recognize employees for making waves. When employees take the risk of creating a productive disruption, give them positive reinforcement. Some organizations build a page on their intranet where employees can submit improvement ideas electronically. Suggestions are approved by senior leaders and the ideas that improve productivity or profits are eligible for a cash reward or free PTO day. Share these innovative ideas at team meetings or in the employee newsletter to show the staff their opinions are valued.

Shake things up. Discipline yourself and your team to tolerate periods of discomfort in the name of progress and innovation. Commit to doing the following in the next month: Have lunch with someone new in your company and hold a meeting somewhere you’ve never held one before. Getting you and your team to get out of their normal routines will encourage everyone to think differently, be more open to change, and provoke positive dialogue within your organization.

Kill stupid rules. In a world where meetings often govern our every move, it’s important to schedule time with your team to question norms. Are you following unproductive practices just to appease the people who suggested them? Rather than continuing on autopilot, make time to regularly assess whether your routine tasks are worth the effort.

Our company, futurethink, recently worked with HBO’s Domestic Network Distribution department to do just that. HBO wanted to explore options for streamlining their processes to make way for a more innovative and fun environment. The tool HBO staffers loved the most was Kill a Stupid Rule, a provocative exercise where employees were encouraged to suggest any rules—such as low-value policies and procedures—they thought should be eliminated. Managers learned there were consistent pain points across the 200-person department, which made it easy to prioritize opportunities for improvement. For example, one common frustration was meetings running long. After hearing this feedback, managers decided that meetings at HBO could not last more than one hour. The aftereffect of this change was so positive that HBO decided to add employees’ suggestions for killing stupid rules to Google Docs so anyone could read them, make comments, and add new their own new ideas. Shelley Brindle, executive vice president of the department, said a key part of the progress was ensuring the staff felt comfortable about speaking up. It was only when HBO work groups built up a certain level of team trust that the best suggestions were brought to light. In other words, when employees stopped worrying about being nice, they were able to make astounding progress.

Yes, life is easier when you shy away from questioning the status quo. But it’s a sure way to prohibit innovation and progress. When you lead by example and demonstrate how constructive criticism actually is constructive, others will follow your lead.

Lisa Bodell
Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink and author of Kill the Company.

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