Fire and Rain: How Nonprofit Niceness Gets in the Way of Progress

We want to thank our friends and clients for the well wishes as many of our fellow Texans recover from a very trying series of spring storms and flooding. I often say it is one of the reasons I love my work — people who work in the social sector are the nicest people you can find. They are always asking about you before ever asking for what they need. But, sometimes niceness can become an obstacle to progress in our organizations. In today’s post, we revisit some tell-tale signs of niceness gone awry and how to turn the tables so that you can move forward.

  • Tension is a good thing — Social sector leaders are the experts in their issues area, but I often see CEOs and staff underplay their expertise as they work alongside influencers either because they are intimidated by the power structure or they are being polite. In this case, it doesn’t serve either party. In order for the best ideas to surface, tension must precede resolution and a better outcome for all. Instead of seeing this tension as a tug-of-war between two ideas, try picturing it as a blanket that you are trying to smooth out together to cover the most area. You have to pull in your direction for the idea to work.
  • Assumptions kill relationships — Social sector leaders are moving in so many directions that we often make assumptions about what others know and how they will react. It often puts the other person in a role as a mind reader and can kill even strong relationships. Try instead to “clarify and confirm” with the other person. When a person instructs you, if you don’t understand something perfectly, ask for clarification on words used, timeline or expectations. Once you believe that you understand their intentions, repeat your interpretation as well as preferred plan of action back to them. The other person will either confirm that you have it right or give additional guidance. It seems like this method takes more time, but it actually takes less time in the long-term and helps build a two-way relationship.
  • Stop being a right-fighter — Dr. Phil is famous for saying, “Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?” When our clients get discouraged about funder expectations or changes in the community, we borrow this idea and ask, “Would you rather be right or make progress?” We often find them spinning their wheels on “being right,” instead of asking themselves how they can make a difference in their current situation. The truth is we do not control most of what happens in the social sector, so we often have to adapt to changing circumstances. In addition, when you focus on assigning blame to “who is wrong,” the community perceives you as negative and your voice is tuned out. When you focus on progress, you are seen as progressive and positive. Try instead to always negotiate between when to fight to be right and when to find solutions.

As a sector, our niceness is an important quality to navigate. When does it work for us by attracting people to our passion and work? And, when does it lead to passive-aggressive tendencies that get in the way of progress? As Confucius said — “he who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.” If you can find that balance, we all win. Please share with us your examples of not letting niceness get in the way of progress. Join us next week as we discuss layered logic models. Enjoy the spring!

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