THE BLOG
10/31/2016 01:47 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2017

Can A Workplace Culture Be Too Nice?

During a recent keynote presentation for two hundred entrepreneurs in North Dakota, I engaged in a great discussion with some of the attendees about the Midwest culture. I was raised in a small town in Minnesota that has many similarities to North Dakota. Both states have a culture that places a high value on being nice and getting along, which are generally wonderful qualities. "Minnesota Nice" is a well-known concept and there are jokes about the "three refusals rule," which requires a person to say no at least three times before accepting anything being offered to them. It sounds something like this:

-Would you like a cup of coffee?

-No, I wouldn't want to put you out.

-Are you sure? It's no trouble at all. I already made a fresh pot.

-Well if you're sure its not any trouble and only if you'll have a cup too.

-You betchya. Do you take cream?

-No, no. That's okay. I'll do without. I think I can drink it black.

-It's no problem. I've got skim milk or half and half, and creamer.

-No. Don't get up again. I don't need it.

-You sure? It's right in the fridge.

-Well, only if you're going that way. I don't want you to make a special trip.

This same concept carries over to the workplace where a similar conversation might start with: "I know you are feeling overwhelmed with work. Do you need additional staff on the project?" The conversation would go on to have the person reject any help by insisting they have it covered and are doing fine.

While there are worse things to be known for than being nice, let's take a closer look at it. Being nice includes being polite, kind and giving. I consider myself a nice person and in fact it is one of my guiding values - to be generous, kind and polite. However, at some point, I made a personal decision to not value being nice at the expense of my integrity, productivity and sanity. Striving to be as authentic as possible is more in alignment for me than being as nice as possible. One can still be kind while being authentic but it also includes being real and at times, risking the potential for conflict and losing the approval of others.

If we've learned to habitually say yes, when we really mean no - it's no longer a matter of being nice. Instead, it becomes a way to avoid conflict and not speak up for ourselves. When you are sacrificing your own needs in order to take care of others, resentment inevitably builds. Too much resentment wreaks havoc in our relationships, family life and work. It contributes to feelings of depression, anger and stress. When we are under prolonged stress, research shows it can impact our physical health too. Extended levels of high stress can exacerbate high blood pressure, over eating, and migraines. So, not only is saying yes when we mean no, not an authentic way to live, it's also dangerous for our mental and physical health.

When you realize you feel resentful, a good question to ask is, "where am I sacrificing too much or not speaking up for myself?" Try to identify where and when you started doing this and trace it back to its origins, which are likely to precede the current incident.

Does your workplace culture tend to reward being nice or being authentic? Will employees be perceived as having more value if they are not asking for help and doing more with less? If so, when and how is it ok for them to ask for help without being seen as incompetent?

Two of the simple but powerful skills that can transform a work culture include learning to: say no without the guilt and excuses; and asking for what you need and want. Management can model these strategies of emotional accountability by openly hearing requests as a healthy expression of a legitimate need.

A work culture that encourages people to speak up and take personal responsibility for their happiness is all the stronger for it. Where does authenticity fall on the list of values in your workplace?