Have you ever heard of Wisconsin Nice? See also, Minnesota Nice and Midwest Nice. Have you heard of these concepts? I hadn’t until I started to meet vendors and business partners from around the country. They would walk into the building, introduce themselves, and before we would even get to the conference room for the meeting, training, collaboration, etcetera they would consistently comment on how nice everyone was. They’d add some quick story about a gas station attendant or a random person who offered directions and how everyone was just so nice. Often they would follow with something to the effect of, “That’s a thing here though right? Being Wisconsin Nice?”
I didn’t know it was a thing here but I did jump in with open arms. Now that I know about our nice calling card, I go even more out of my way to be nice to people. I want to be part of the quick stories about how nice we all are and I want all the people who are interacting with me to feel like those outside business partners do when they come here. I have always been nice to people I meet in passing, holding doors, smiling at anyone and everyone that makes eye contact with me, complimenting friends and complete strangers, assisting folks who appear need a hand with a cart or grocery bag, and buying a coffee here or there for some unsuspecting person in the car behind me in the drive through. Finding out about our thing didn’t make me nice but it did encourage me to up my game.
For some of us, being nice is fully engrained into us. We’re taught, especially as women, that nice is a critical part of who you need to be. For people like me, who already tend toward the more blunt and spicy side of our personalities, having the nice thing heavily encouraged is probably a positive. (Not that I wouldn’t be nice to people if there wasn’t a social norm but I do think it helps even out what would otherwise be a very spiky view of my niceness and spiciness.)There are others though that are more sweet and caring by nature, and when you pile on the nice culture, it’s just too much. I have a dear friend who is one such sweet lady. She would truly do anything for anyone and then apologize that she didn’t also provide chocolate chip cookies while doing it. To give you an idea, I once saw her apologize to a traffic light because she didn’t make it all the way through before it turned yellow. Traffic lights aside, there are many stories of her going out of her way for friends and strangers who were unappreciative or using her in some way. Each time I heard one of those stories I would quip back with how I would handle the situation only to be met with a, “oh I should, but I could never.” She never wanted to hurt anyone or cause any sort of negative reaction. If anyone was ever upset with her (justified or not) she would take it so very personally. I don’t know that any of us are ever truly ambivalent to another person being upset with us but some people, like this friend, take it as a personal assault and pile on themselves. (Could you imagine if you felt like you wronged a traffic light by driving through it how much harder you’d be on yourself if a person told you that you hurt them?!)
There was one instance where a man we worked with was clearly taking advantage of her kindness, generosity, and sweet nature. She would cover his shifts consistently at a moments notice. She would pick him up from nights out with his friends when he couldn’t drive himself home. She would listen endlessly as he described his latest heartbreak, work stress, or other general complaint. Finally when he attempted one such call she timidly told him she was with other people and couldn’t talk (while apologizing). He tried to convincer her to leave or walk into another room and she declined offering to call later. He was angry with her over this for weeks and she was distraught. She couldn’t understand how he’d be so angry after she was so nice. I explained that she sort of trained him to expect she’d always be there. Heck, she was training all of us to expect that. There were many of us, myself included, that (although the friendship was more reciprocal than how that man approached a friendship with her) had come to expect she would always be there for us. She would always be the shoulder to cry on, cover our work shifts, or heaven forbid pick us up late at night. We never would have reacted the way he did should she say no but on the rare occasion it happened you were taken aback that she didn’t just jump in. Why is that? You were rarely told no, when you were the reasons were mixed, and it was only after you had crossed the line multiple times.
This happens daily in an office setting and you don’t even have to go to the extreme of my sweet friend to have it occur. How many times you gotten feedback for the first time but the person delivering it sounds as if they feel like a broken record? How many times have you been corrected on a behavior but the reason behind the corrections keeps changing or your asked to change and they why is a moving target? Or worst yet you walk into a meeting about your performance and walk out unsure if what you did was right or wrong? If I keep this up for another six months, will I get promoted or fired? I don’t know about other areas but around here we really all are Wisconsin Nice and we don’t want to hurt feelings. Because of that we do things like wait for the problem to become a pattern. We avoid providing feedback until we’re so frustrated we’re about to erupt. We sort of dance around the problem, or my personal favorite, pepper it with so many compliments to soften the blow that no one knows what we’re saying.
There is a way to avoid this. As in most things, it can be applied to both personal and professional life alike. First, you need to create the foundation which includes explaining the intention of what you’re doing and why followed by making the plan for how you’ll execute. Second, you need to provide the feedback timely. Third, be abundantly clear on what needs to be corrected or developed and why. Finally, keep the conversation to the thing/event/problem at hand. While you may need to clarify performance on the whole compared to this one incident or area, keep 90% of the focus on the point of discussion.
Set the foundation and create a plan.
If you’re new to formally leading, or working with a new group, this could be part of your manager integration with your team explaining your leadership (including feedback) style. If you’ve been in the role a minute you can own that this is an area that you’re developing in and explain to the team your plan to improve. It might look like:
I recognize that some of my coaching and feedback delivery may have been lacking in the past. I am committed to improving that. Going forward I intend to provide frequent feedback on what you’re doing well and areas to improve. Please expect constructive feedback in your one-on-ones and in real time. My intent is to see you grow and develop and it is my job to assist you in that. If you have any questions or ever feel unsure of your performance in some area please ask.
Once you’ve laid the ground work you just need to follow through.
Provide timely feedback.
Give the feedback to the person as soon as possible. People need to understand what was done wrong and the context of the error. Waiting for review time or even the regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings can be too late for the person (or you) to remember exactly what happened and give detailed information. On the other hand, if the topic caused any sort of emotional response in either of you, it is best to allow yourselves time to think level headedly about the situation before jumping in.
Be as clear and specific as possible.
Talking around an issue or muddling many different ‘why’s is confusing. People can’t understand what it is that they are getting feedback on if you are vague, or waffling on an issue, providing a moving target. The recipient of the feedback wants to improve so they want a clear understanding of the errors and how to move forward. The model I try to follow in this, and move communications, is gratitude, why, what, and how (empowering when possible). This might look like:
I appreciate the work you’re putting into the quality of your work. The quality of your work exceeds my expectations however while looking at the metrics recently I’ve noticed that your production is low. The success of the team depends on each person meeting their goals and expectations. The expectation is that you complete 20 calls per day and your average is currently at 15 and on a downward trend. This is leaving more calls for other teammates to handle. What do you think is standing in the way of you completing 20 calls per day? _____ How can we make improvements here?
Keep the focus on the thing, not the person, or other people.
All too often people start out on the right foot giving feedback but either the recipient takes it personally or the provider of the feedback assumes they will and goes off course. They will start bringing in motives for behavior or assuming other people’s intent. This will take a turn quickly I promise you and the recipient won’t know what to actually follow. If someone tries to take you off course on a personal level, bring them right back to the objective. You’ll notice in the above example that I never said “you should be able to hit 20 calls per day” or “everyone else on the team is able to hit 30 calls per day.” That is because both of those come across accusatory and truly don’t matter. What does matter is that there is an objective that isn’t being met.
All of the above applies if you’re receiving the feedback as well. First, even if your manager doesn’t go so far as to explain their communication and feedback styles you can assume they want you to understand your performance early and often. Not because everyone wants to communicate that way but they do want you to fix all missteps quickly regardless of if they understand their role in that or not. If you’re not getting consistent feedback, ask for it. “How did you think I handled that meeting?” “Was that last document what you were looking for or do you have suggestions for next time?” If you’re getting unclear information or personal feelings are getting mixed in, stay objective and suggest a solution. This might look like:
So if I’m understanding you right I need to keep the quality of my calls where it is and increase the number I take, correct? I run into issues when customers have many questions. I’m not sure how to end the conversation to get to the next call and still provide the service they expect. Maybe I could work with someone to create a list of possible closings that allow me to get off the call sooner?
Being Wisconsin Nice is a thing we do here and it has its perks but when it gets in the way of continuously improving ourselves professionally, or personally, it has got to go. Don’t be afraid to be direct and bold in providing and receiving info on things that aren’t serving yourself or others. The perk of the nice is that it allows us to be direct and bold while holding compassion of the person and assuming the best intent.
Things I’m reminding myself of
All of this applies to giving yourself feedback (self-reflection) as well. I cannot tell you how many times I have screamed in my head, ‘OMG you are so dumb.’ (Not exactly fitting in my gratitude, why, what, how framework right?) Do not talk to yourself like that. Give yourself timely, clear, and actionable feedback often but do it constructively. Learn from the mistake and move on to improve.
Clear is kind, unclear is unkind, Brene Brown. I love this quote and have adopted is as a mantra, and I kind of think all my Wisconsin Nice friends should do the same. We are vague because we’re trying to be nice and it just isn’t. Being clear is always kind.
You are always training people how to behave and interact with you. If you tolerate something inappropriate you’re condoning it. Be that being late in a role that requires promptness, not making enough phone calls, or mistreatment of you personally. If you allow it you are training people to continue it. Remember that and set your boundaries of what is acceptable for you in this type of work, in this season of life, etc. Correct people if they are approaching or stepping over those boundaries every time.