If You Can't Say Something Nice...

Mom always told me that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

I’m sure you’ve all heard that before. The idea of being polite has always been a regulating aspect of society, keeping us all in check and ensuring that there is always a level of civility among us. But sometimes saying something not-so-nice can be more beneficial than impolite.

Human beings are naturally imperfect. It’s what forces us to do things over, to fix things we messed up, to readjust and to correct ourselves. Otherwise, the world would probably be a perfect place, without the need for things like traffic lights, super glue or band aids or apologies. This lack of “perfectivity” in each of us means that we have to learn to fix our mistakes, or else leave those mistakes for others to fix for us (which I would say is downright annoying).

Work adds another facet to the order of repairing our own mistakes. When we’re at work, we are no longer just individuals who make mistakes, we are in essence a single group that is prone to multiple mistakes simultaneously. Any particular person in the group can screw up, which means that for the group to advance, it needs to make up for those mistakes, either as a group, or as individuals willing to volunteer to fix the problem.

One of the issues with coworker-based repair, is that some people have a [bad] habit of letting others do the fixing for them. Like the guy who walks away from an empty printer, making others refill the tray, or the person who uses the bandsaw in the shop and leaves dust and a chunk of metal sitting on it. Or the person who “promised” to have his edits of the report to you by 3PM, only to give it to you at 4:59pm, leaving you to stay late to finish it. People who purposely leave their mistakes for others to fix need to be told, and told something not nice. Being nice to those individuals only gives them the license to keep pushing the envelope, until you can’t take in anymore, forcing you to up the ante until you both have to report to HR. When people are pushed to their limits of tolerance, nothing positive comes from it.

Another problem is the know it all who continually needs to be corrected. That guy who continually gives vendors the wrong information, of that admin who keeps confidently guessing what time the meeting will be. The know it all types bring a different paradigm of problem to the organization – they are what we’d call “people who know enough to be dangerous”. That phrase came to me from a machinist buddy, who tagged individuals who knew enough to turn on a dangerous 3HP milling machine, and understood just enough to cut their finger off with it. The know it all brings both a false sense of understanding, and a hesitation to be corrected. The know it all will swear that his information is right, even if proven otherwise. Like the captain who swears that the ship is okay, while behind him a crowd of people are jumping off as water floods the deck. These people also need a dose of correction, probably more than one, to ensure that they don’t inadvertently take down the entire ship single handedly.

In the startup realm, it gets much more personal.

When the company comprises of just 4 people, every mistake is amplified, just as every effect of every mistake is amplified. A short timeline combined with a short runway of funds means that there’s little room for errors and correction. Errors and mistakes cost time and money – but in short supply. The almost inhuman task of doing things as perfectly as possible means that startup people are normally on edge all the time. It’s akin to a group of hikers, tied together, navigating a deep gorge via a very, very narrow cliffside path; one wrong step, and everyone falls to their death. The startup environment gets very tense, very touchy, and at times very contentious. It’s not uncommon for startup people to yell and scream at each other, to correct each other’s mistakes reactively, even at the best of times. Because the effect of a mistake can be catastrophic, startup people are extra sensitive to making sure everything goes right. The other side of the coin in this situation is that if nobody speaks up, everyone will watch in horror as the ship slowly sinks into oblivion. Saying nothing can be much worse than saying something and hurting someone’s feelings or ego.

We all believe that it’s politically correct to be nice at work, even when something is wrong. But there are times, and people, that define when being nice or saying something nice is not an option. We have to learn that a thick skin enables us to push each other without killing each other, and allows us to correct each other without holding a grudge against our coworkers. Because we all make mistakes, the need to self-reflect on what we do wrong helps us to understand how to “help” others with their mistakes. Edison famously said “I have not failed – I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. Just because something doesn’t work right doesn’t make it bad. But doing the same failing thing over and over IS bad. Sometimes, it takes a second pair of eyes or ears to remind us of this when we get caught in a loop.

There is a point of no return, when not saying something because it’s not nice becomes self-defeating. We need to communicate in order to coexist and cooperate, as a society, and as working groups. In both cases, we sink or swim as a collective existence. Without speaking up, the potential for very bad things increases. We have to be willing to be the “bad guy” in order to keep the ship afloat, and willing to have thick skins in order to become better. If our coworkers are professional, they will appreciate the message more than be offended by it, because with the message of correction, we both learn and improve.

Communication, both positive or negative, can mean a win-win for everyone. Think twice before you decide to hold a message back just to be nice…

… because even mom had to say some not-so-nice things to us, to make us who we are today…

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