Providing and receiving feedback is critical to a healthy team.

A coworker once told me, “We’re so busy being nice to each other, we’re not being kind.” In this sentence, nice and kind obviously don’t mean the same thing. So, what was her point?

Team management training meeting - Lead Belay
There’s a distinction between a “nice,” conflict-free work culture and one that values honest, constructive feedback when it’s needed.

Here’s the distinction she was making. Nice is courteous. Nice is smiles at the start of a Zoom meeting. Nice is chatting over lunch. Nice can also be avoiding telling someone her work is falling short; or his performance isn’t meeting expectations. Nice is failing to push someone to meet a deadline. Nice is sidestepping difficult conversations.

“We’re so busy being nice to each other, we’re not being kind.”


Woman sharing an honest laugh - Lead Belay
Being nice might feel safe, but honesty is the kindest thing we can do for one another.

Sure, you can end your workday happy after a conflict-free day of being nice. Nice feels safe. But the bill for being nice will come due. My coworker’s observation was a profound statement about our work culture that got to the heart of some of our greatest struggles.

In our case, being nice had consequences that led to missed deadlines, marathon weekends, and projects over budget. Our concern about being something less-than-nice led us to overlook instances where being honest was necessary to protect ourselves, the team, and the project.


Consequences are where nice and kind diverge

After many years as a manager, it’s still not easy for me to have those difficult conversations.

From the time I was a child, I was taught to be nice to others. And that is so important in a civilized society. But I wasn’t taught the distinction between nice and kind. In the traditional sense, telling people their work isn’t good enough feels not nice. To some of us, it can even feel mean.

Coworkers providing tough feedback - Lead Belay
Provide feedback, ask tough questions, and push the “nice” boundary. It’s the kind thing to do.

But it’s meaner to let someone flounder just so you don’t have to be uncomfortable. It’s best to push through your impulse to “be nice” and instead “be kind” by giving feedback when it’s needed, in a caring, constructive way.

Here are some tips to help get the truth out there if you find yourself being nice instead of honest. First, take the time to reframe the conversation in a positive light. Rotary International has a great way to evaluate a situation called The Four Way Test. Ask yourself the following questions about your feedback before giving feedback to a team member:

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build goodwill and better friendships? (Or, in the case of a leader, better relationships)
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?”


Prioritizing honesty over niceties

Here are some more techniques I’ve found helpful.

Imagine consequences

Consider what could happen if you don’t provide feedback, ask the question, or push the boundary.

Teammates supporting one another - Lead Belay
It can feel mean to tell someone their work is lacking, but it’s meaner to let them flounder so you can avoid feeling uncomfortable.

First, you might lose that person’s trust. No one wants to discover they’ve been underperforming when it’s too late to fix it. Being direct at the outset will ultimately build trust because your team members will have a real idea of how they’re doing and know you’ll let them know if they aren’t.

Second, are you just delaying the inevitable? It’s likely a burden will have to be carried by someone, at some point. Can you lessen or prevent that burden by intervening now? If so, you are not being mean, you’re being kind.

Encourage a spirit of inquiry to learn together

Reframe the conversations as opportunities for learning to help make feedback positive.

This takes time to master. As a starting point, I recommend looking at the Five Whys, or root cause analysis, from Lean principles that rose out of manufacturing. This video is a good recap of the principles and methodology.

I’ve found them even more helpful by adding the question, “Why do you think that?” between each of the whys. Adopting the mindset of treating each problem as an opportunity for growth removes tension and clears heads when pressure is high.

Advising a peer can be a powerful conversation - Lead Belay
Encouraging a spirit of inquiry can help reframe critical feedback as opportunities for learning.

Request and welcome feedback about your own performance

Being kind is a two-way street.

Creating a safe environment that allows for open and honest dialogue requires managers to get feedback from their team about themselves. It can be intimidating for employees to give feedback to their managers. Admit your shortcomings, acknowledge that you always have room to grow, and express gratitude for candor. Schedule dedicated time to have these conversations and give them your full attention while having them.


I was taught to be kind as a child. I was also taught that most worthwhile achievements in life require and merit a lot of effort. Being kind, not nice takes time and discipline — and is certainly worthwhile.

If you or others from your organization would like to build the skills to be kind and effective as people leaders, reach out to us.


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