Early in my extension career, I took an inventory to determine my personality style. The facilitator then posted our styles up on an overhead (yes, that’s what we used) so we could all learn to work together as a team. What struck me was how everyone in the group clustered together … except for one outlier. The facilitator described the main group — the “people” people, and as she did so, I recognized who the outlier might be. I was the lone “idea” person. That made sense to me as I contemplated our work. Extension is full of interactions with people, and relationships are a key to our success. You want to have “people” people for this kind of work. It also means we have a lot of nice people who work in extension, people who are agreeable and concerned about others. It’s unlikely you choose a line of work like extension if you aren’t a nice person.
I want to be clear that nice is a good thing to be. However, with so many nice birds flocking together, extension work can become mired in a “culture of nice,” keeping bad work from being eliminated and good work from getting better. We’re too nice to call a bad project a bad project. When we criticize, we criticize in vague, general statements. Of course, we engage in these behaviors out of human decency. Who wants to be the one to say that someone’s program is not worth the effort?
There also is self-interest. We work with a lot of partners in this business. You don’t want to have criticized someone’s program only to find out you need his or her help on your next effort. So we shut up, and sometimes efforts that everyone knows are sinkholes of mismanagement just keep floating along. I’m not saying we should stop being polite, but doing our best work requires that we address the less efficient practices, the programs with little or no impact, the publications we spend money printing and storing in air conditioning but that no one wants any longer, or the time-draining meetings that no one wants to talk about.
In the article, “When Nice Won’t Suffice: Honest Discourse Is Key to Shifting School Culture,” Elisa MacDonald describes how educators feel deeply reluctant to openly critique their own practices or those of others, and how this serves as a barrier to thoughtful, meaningful sharing, especially in professional contexts. MacDonald provides a helpful list of signs that the culture of nice may be creeping into your professional conversation, including rarely questioning practices and assumptions, only sharing successful efforts to avoid judgment from peers, and recommending strategies that are not applied to our own efforts.
MacDonald gives examples and offers strategies to refocus the discussion in a more critical, honest direction. The goal, she argues, is to replace the culture of nice with a culture of trust, where educators feel safe in sharing their own growth areas and shifting thinking and behavior. She maintains that improvement only can occur when we can openly question long-standing norms and have rigorous collaborative discourse. MacDonald mentions it takes courage to respond in ways that will lead to incremental shifts in thinking and behavior. See you there.