At a marketing seminar with a previous boss, I shuffled my way into the row of seats directly behind her for one of our breakout sessions. After we all sat down and faced forward for the presentation, I saw it: Her tag sticking directly out of the collar of her sweater.
Immediately, a heated internal debate began playing out in my head. Should I just reach forward and subtly tuck that tag back where it belonged? Is it weird to do that for your supervisor? Or, should I glue my eyes on the stage and somehow pretend that I don’t see that giant list of washing instructions in eight different languages hanging directly in front of my face?
Ultimately, I chose the second option. I didn’t want to draw more attention to her wardrobe faux pas and risk embarrassing her in front of the professional acquaintances seated around us—even though, I realize now, it was probably equally embarrassing to just let her sit there and unknowingly broadcast her sweater size to everybody with a working set of eyeballs.
Are you scoffing and criticizing me for being a terrible and inconsiderate employee? Hold on just a minute—because you’ve more than likely done this very same thing plenty of times yourself.
Maybe you didn’t tell your mentor that she still had the remainder of that afternoon’s cobb salad wedged in between her two front teeth. Perhaps you didn’t let a co-worker know that a piece of his project could use some significant improvement. Or, maybe you stayed late to fix a report that was done incorrectly—because you didn’t have the heart to tell your teammate that it was done completely wrong.
Sure, avoiding saying the things that are hard for other people to hear seems like it’s a nice thing to do in the heat of the moment. But, as writer Gregory Ciotti so eloquently explains in his post for Helpscout, what’s nice isn’t always kind.
The end result is that “niceness” becomes a black-and-white trait with no nuance, one that more readily resembles politeness than the spectrum of ways to make a kind, thoughtful gesture to a peer or colleague.
When Nice Isn’t Kind
Hold up, what? It’s confusing, I know. Nice and kind are so often used as interchangeable synonyms, that it’s pretty strange to think that there could be a difference between them. But, there is.
Take a moment to ask yourself why you kept that fix, criticism, or comment to yourself? Was it really because you wanted to save that person the shame or the disappointment? Probably not. Chances are, your reasoning was much more selfish than that. You kept your mouth shut to save yourself—you didn’t want to feel uncomfortable and be the bearer of bad news.
This sort of “turning a blind eye” approach is self-serving—it means you don’t have to put yourself in a situation where you feel uneasy. But, think about this: Is that really kind to the other person? Definitely not.
My boss eventually realized her tag was hanging out of her collar and turned red in the face with humiliation—and was also left wondering how long that I’d let her showcase the fact that her cardigan was a cotton polyester blend.
That cobb salad-loving interviewer of yours? She probably took a quick trip to the bathroom and was mortified to see that lettuce front and center in her teeth. Your co-worker? He submitted a lackluster project because you didn’t have the heart to speak up with some constructive criticism. And, your other teammate? She’s going to continue to do that very same task incorrectly every time—meaning you’re preventing her from learning and improving, and ultimately making more work for yourself.
“You’re left making a dangerous assumption: that critique and criticism are inherently unkind,” Ciotti says in his piece. But, you know what? That’s simply untrue. In fact, it’s arguably even more unkind to let people continue to operate in ignorance, just so you can avoid having to share the hard truths.
Moving forward, I’m going to make my best effort to be honest (politely, of course!), even when the facts aren’t necessarily all that fun for people to hear. Because—while it might be a little more cringe-worthy in the moment—in the long run, that approach is far better for everybody involved.
As for you? Well, I challenge you to do the very same thing and be kind to everyone—even if it doesn’t feel all that nice. Consider this your warning: If you ever see something stuck in my teeth or my tag hanging out of my top, I want you to let me know. Immediately, please.