What’s the point of being nice?


That’s what the scholars’ second study sought to uncover, which is why they went to one of the most complex, demanding and challenging work environments that exists – the operating theatre – where they analysed more than 370 teams over a period of six months. They noted the number of times they observed courteous and considerate behaviour and then tracked the extent to which the team complied with a strict checklist mandated by their employer.

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Well, being nice was found to have a negligible impact on team performance. More specifically in difficult surgeries, the friendliness and civility “had significant and detrimental effects” and, depending on the complexity of the task or objective, was deemed to “decrease, disappear and even potentially flip [the team’s performance] to negative”.

That correlation can be explained by the difference between positive and negative communication. Language that relies on messages of courtesy and praise can result in overconfidence and an underestimation of risk, the implications of which can lead team members to “rely on existing task procedures and strategies, avoid seeking and considering alternative viewpoints [and] maintain harmony by overly striving toward consensus”. In other words, sameness and groupthink.

In contrast, the alternative communication style “signifies the presence of a problem”, thereby prompting team members to engage in the kind of decision-making process that could resolve it.

The solution for modern workplaces, according to the scholars, isn’t to encourage incivility among teams that perform intellectual or intricate activities. A better approach is to provide training so they’re aware of the value of being pleasant to each other before they work together, as they transition from one task to the next, and afterwards in meetings and debriefing sessions.

But while the heat is on and they’re in the thick of it, they should be trained to “direct their communication to task-relevant content so as to minimise [the consequences of] superfluous communication”. They also need to be taught how to be less sensitive and more resilient when confronted by verbal exchanges that, while well intentioned, may appear brutal.

Which essentially means to be more forgiving. Which is ironically quite a nice thing to do.

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