“Be nice Mark” was a constant refrain while growing up in Wheaton, Illinois, a city with white picket fences, churches and apple pie. The message came from my mom, my dad and our church. They taught me why to be nice and how to be nice. How strange that as I learned to be nice, I learned to be hated.
When I was young, my mother taught me that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Though she did not always follow her words of wisdom, I believed in and understood this philosophy. When my mom said something nice to me, I felt good. When she said something not so nice, I felt bad. Not only was I was learning what made me feel good and bad, but I also was learning how to make others feel good and bad. At an early age, I drew the conclusion that I wanted to feel good and make others feel good. I had clarity.
In my teenage years, Leo Durocher, the manager of the Chicago Cubs, was famous for his catch phrase, “Nice guys finish last.” The phrase had a profound impact on me, not as a philosophy to believe in, but as challenge to prove wrong. I was confident that my mom had taught me right, insisting that I be nice. Leo’s philosophy must be wrong since my mom did not want me to “finish last.”
In my twenties, I started an engineering services company with a few goals, one of which was to prove Leo Durocher wrong. I was going to build a large and successful company while being nice. I did not realize at the time, but slowly and painfully learned, that my definition of nice was flawed. I thought part of nice was always trying to make people feel good no matter what. In a simplistic world, that might work, but when you are running a company with hundreds of employees, that definition was causing serious problems. I excelled at providing positive feedback, but because of my upbringing, I failed in providing negative feedback. I was afraid. I knew I was failing as a leader, but I did not know what to do.
In my early forties, to my great fortune, my wife bought me a book written by Patrick Lencioni titled, “The Five Temptations of a CEO.” Reading the book was a pivotal moment for me as a CEO, husband, father and community member. The book broadened my understanding of nice. Lencioni described five temptations that hamstring CEOs, one of which I was constantly falling prey to, “Wanting to be liked more than wanting to tell the truth.” In a masterfully written chapter, Lencioni described that withholding negative feedback was a terrible disservice to employees. Employees, and in fact all people, deserved to know the good and the bad. Lencioni teaches that providing both positive and negative feedback is a true gift if given with the appropriate intent, to help a person improve.
Integrating this new understanding of nice is challenging. I still want to be nice as my mom taught me. I still want to make others feel good. Intellectually, I understand the concept and am able to teach others. To actually execute is much harder. However, after fifteen years of practice, I am improving at providing both positive and negative feedback. Most of the time, I am thanked. Most of the time, they receive the feedback with the loving intent it is delivered. However, on occasion, the feedback is not appreciated. On occasion, I sense I am hated. Granted they don’t say, “I hate you,” but the sense of hatred is there.
Now in my fifties, I am learning to be hated. Mom taught me to be nice. Patrick Lencioni taught me to be honest. The consequence is occasional hatred. My path now is to improve my ability to tell people what they seem to want to hear, but don’t like hearing. I continue to practice and will so for the rest of my life.
In all truth, I don’t like to be hated so I wrestle with these questions: Should we withhold feedback that might not be appreciated? If we withhold, are we being honest and loving? If we withhold, are we doing the best we can for our family, friends, team, company and community?