Why being polite is killing your company
If you're struggling to build a great company, you might have a politeness problem.
I was taught to be polite. I've gotten gifts I didn't like but said I did. I've eaten meals that weren't great but I said they were.
Manners have been around for centuries and shape our behaviors. They are a way of showing respect. And respect is important. First, being polite helps you not end up sad and alone. But it also creates opportunities. The more people who respect and like you, the more opportunities you'll have for friendships, work, etc.
When I started a company though, I realized the problem with being polite.
Being polite may lead to more opportunities but it doesn't lead to the best one: the opportunity to make something remarkable.
Great products create change. They're designed to do something different and much better than average. Politeness, meanwhile, is designed to keep things in order. To pull you toward average. But in business, average won't cut it.
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There's thousands of decisions you make when you build a company. If you're too polite in those decisions, your team won't create something great. You'll be afraid to say when a product stinks. You'll be scared to disagree with a company process. Gossip will happen. You'll say "yes" to things that aren't good enough. The opportunity to be great will close.
In fact, there's proof that politeness hurts performance. A 2010 survey by the Corporate Executive Board of more than 4,000 employees found that companies who rate highly on open communication returned an average of 270 percent more in value over 10 years than other companies.
Why honesty is essential to creativity
Pixar is one of the most successful animation studios ever. They've won the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture for half their films. And every Pixar film has landed on the respective year's top 10 most profitable films.
According to Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, Pixar's creativity is a product of the environment they've created--one of healthy debate and honesty. As Catmull says, when it comes to critiquing work at Pixar, "Nobody pulls any punches to be polite."
It's easier to be polite than to say what's on your mind. Confrontation is uncomfortable, especially when there's a lot on the line. And in business, there's a lot on the line: your livelihood, money, relationships, and happiness.
If we say, "we are an honest company," we can't assume that everyone will instantly be comfortable being honest. Simply due to human nature and society, that won't be the case.
If one of my teammates feels it's easier to speak his or her mind with a friend than with me, we've failed. There will be some people who find it harder to be brutally honest than others. But it's up to everyone, especially company leaders, to set up an environment that makes people feel they can be honest.
If we pull from Pixar's playbook, here are three ways you can design honesty into your company.
3 ways to encourage honesty over being polite
1. Make it safe to tell the truth. If people who are seen as leaders in your company seem too aggressive, people will feel scared to disagree. Pixar aims to create a safe place for debate by making meeting reviews honest, not personal. It's all about making a better film. "As soon as we said, 'This is purely peers giving feedback to each other,' the effectiveness of the review sessions dramatically improved", says Catmull. It's human nature to defend a personal threat. So it's important to say it's not personal at the start of every meeting until it becomes clearly implied.
2. Show how to be honest without being a jerk. Every time you have a critique, add something that improves the idea. Instead of saying, "That tagline doesn't work," say, "That tagline doesn't work. It feels too long. What if you removed the first two words?" This difference might seem small but it shows your aim is to improve the initial idea. Not bash it.
3. Pass the mic. Let your team get in the habit of speaking about their ideas. Public speaking is most people's biggest fear, so start small. Do private one-on-ones. Then move to small groups. Pixar has their team show works in progress daily and invites everyone to email what they liked, what they didn't, and why to the creators. Catmull says, "Regardless of discipline or position, [everyone] gets to go at some point. We make a concerted effort to make it safe to criticize."
Too much politeness is one of the biggest problems in business today. It may not seem like a big deal but it's a silent killer.
Lots of people like to believe they say what they think. But in reality, most people don't. We assume everyone can overcome the discomfort of brutal honesty. As a CEO, I might feel comfortable saying anything to anyone. But that doesn't matter. What matters is how I help all our teammates feel comfortable challenging any idea. And sticking up for their own.
This is the only way we'll make exceptional work together.