The problem with ‘West Michigan Nice’

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If you know anything about our Leading by DESIGN team, you know that we are huge fans of West Michigan. We believe West Michigan should develop into the hotbed of the best leaders in the country. But we also believe we have some work to do before this will be true.

I remember meeting a man from Chicago many years ago who told me he couldn’t really trust people from West Michigan. I was surprised to hear him say that until he explained his perspective. He said that people from West Michigan won’t tell you what they really think, but back in Chicago you knew where you stood with someone.

As I reflected on this, I had to admit that I not only understood his perspective, I even agreed with some of it. This is part of what many call “West Michigan Nice” and I love the intention behind it. We try hard not to hurt someone’s feelings and we really want to be nice to others. The problem arises when we end up not being real and not sharing information that really is important to share.

It turns out that difficult truths, or what we perceive to be truths, can hurt someone’s feelings. Our propensity to withhold these truths keeps us from achieving more and, more importantly, it keeps us from helping others face truths that could help them grow. And even though the truth can be very painful, I do believe in the old adage that the truth will set you free.

Many of us in West Michigan hold fast to the idea of speaking the truth in love. Doing both together is hard, but it is important because sharing difficult truths without love can be mean and loving someone (“being nice”) without truth can be a lie.

In our neck of the woods we tend to lean toward the love-without-truth side of things. In other areas of the country (Chicago and New York City come to mind), they lean toward speaking their truth without much love. They can be crass and careless but at least are willing to share a perspective that helps someone know where they stand, which can lead to their growth. But it can feel mean.

We are working to be leaders that will share the difficult truth while also doing it with love. We believe this is one of the leadership traits West Michigan can learn to do better than other areas of the country.

Maybe you’re not sold yet, so here are some reasons why we think this is so important:

  • It is wrong, even immoral, to not share information about something that is holding someone’s career back or, worse yet, might put their job in jeopardy.
  • Organizations are much less effective when these difficult conversations don’t happen. As such, real value is left on the table when this isn’t done well.
  • Giving honest feedback, both affirming and adjusting, is one of the best ways to help people grow, especially those who work for us.
  • Not sharing difficult perceptions may seem like we’re protecting someone else’s feelings, but we’re convinced it’s the uncomfortable feelings that rise in us that we’re really avoiding. If someone knew of a potential issue you have, would you want them to share it with you? We suspect you would.

If you are convinced, you might wonder how this can be done well. The simple method we teach is:

  • Humbly share your perception or concern, realizing there is a possibility that you could be wrong or that you are unaware of another very legitimate perspective.
  • Seek to understand their perspective. This may take three seconds, three minutes or three conversations. They won’t be ready to fully understand your perspective until they feel you understand theirs. This willingness to deeply understand their viewpoint is an act of love.
  • After they feel understood, you need to share your more-informed perspective with them. This may be unchanged from what you originally shared, or it may be completely different. This may take very little time, such as saying, “I’m sorry; I misunderstood what you were doing” or it may be a little more involved, but it will be well worth the time needed. When both perspectives are in the light, any surviving issues become right-sized. When issues lurk in the shadows, they usually seem much bigger than they really are. When you name the issue, you tame the issue.
  • After both perspectives are understood, the issue will either be instantly solved (which is very common) or it will give you a good chance of solving it together.
  • And finally, you must follow through on any actions that were adopted. Even if it’s only unilateral, you need to do your part.

All West Michigan leaders need to get better at this, including ourselves. And the best time to start practicing it is today.

Rodger Price is the founder and managing partner of Leading by DESIGN, an executive development firm in Grand Rapids.

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