Is 'Minnesota Nice' really nice?

For those who don’t know, there is a phenomenon here in Minnesota that is known as “Minnesota Nice.” It refers to how Minnesotans are generally courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. It’s not strange for a Minnesotan cashier to hold up the line because they know one item in your cart had a coupon and they’re going to find it for you. Don’t be surprised to find that even though it snowed 2 feet while you were out of town, your driveway is clear because neighbors you’ve hardly ever spoken to shoveled it for you. Unfortunately, this extreme politeness can lead to a strong aversion to confrontation. Passive aggressive behavior runs rampant in Minnesota, but it’s really quite common no matter where you are. This is why it’s become such a hot topic in our sales leader peer groups.

When conflict arises in a workplace there are many ways to deal with it. The Minnesota Nice approach generally starts with what seems like a friendly gesture. Let’s say we have Sales Rep, Tom, and Sales Manager, Brenda. Tom submitted his monthly forecast and it had a few mistakes in it.  It wasn’t completely up to date, opportunities were in the wrong stages, and not all the dollars were representative of the deals. Brenda, being the true Minnesotan she is, doesn’t want to make Tom feel bad about the mistake… that would be impolite. She also doesn’t want to interrupt his selling time so she fixes the report for him and uses it in the next forecast meeting. Of course, next week Tom sends the same report again, then again the next week, and the next week after that. Brenda knows she should say something but now doesn’t know how because it’s become an awkward situation. He doesn’t know he’s done anything wrong. He’d probably feel bad if he learned he’s been doing it wrong all this time and Brenda had to use her own time to fix it. Brenda doesn’t want to embarrass poor Tom… that would be impolite, but she also doesn’t want to use bad information. In keeping with the Minnesota Nice tradition she comes up with a plan. She’ll leave hints, send ambiguous emails, or maybe even get someone else to say something and hope Tom figures it out himself.

Well, guess what? Tom doesn’t figure it out. Brenda is frustrated and finally confronts Tom, only now she’s so upset about the whole thing she goes overboard. Tom had no idea he was doing anything wrong, much less that he’d been doing it wrong for months. He feels attacked and confused. He’s a good employee who would have been more then willing to correct his mistake, but now he’s just as upset as Brenda.

Does this sound familiar? As it turns out, being ‘nice’ can be a disservice to your employees and the company. By avoiding a small conflict early on we often create a big conflict later. An even bigger issue is that this passive aggressive behavior can snowball. One employee is being passive aggressive to another and that employee is being passive aggressive to someone else. Pretty soon the whole office is ‘being nice’ and no one is solving anything.

Then what happens? We all have a meeting and talk about how we need to improve our communication. Unfortunately, Communications’R’Us doesn’t exist. You can’t just go to the store and upgrade to a better model. Communication has to be taught and consistently applied. So, when things go wrong how should you confront someone? Here are the steps we suggest for effectively addressing these situations:

  1. You have to say something:
    If something isn’t being done to your liking it’s your responsibility to bring it up right away. The truth is, most people want to know when they’re doing something wrong so they can correct it. They may not always agree with you but they still want to know.
  2. Take Ownership:
    Take personal ownership of the misunderstanding or mistake. This way it doesn’t seem like your attacking the person and they’re much less likely to get defensive. For example, say, “I noticed that you didn’t do that report correctly, maybe I wasn’t completely clear in my expectation. Can we go over it again?”. This will result in a much more productive conversation.
  3. Use “What, So What, and Now What?” to guide the conversation:
    First, talk about the ‘what’. Explain what you saw without judgment or emotion, as if you were a video camera (e.g. The forecast report you submitted wasn’t completely up to date and the dollars didn’t seem representative of the deals). Only state the facts and stay calm while doing so. Second, talk about the “so what”. Basically, what impact could the ‘what’ have on them, you, the team, or the customer? (e.g. this information is really important, if it’s not accurate we may not be prepared to handle the customer’s orders when they come in.) Finally, talk about the ‘now what’. This is the plan for moving forward. The trick here is that THEY need to come up with the ‘now what’. If you just tell them what to do you may get the nod and smile reply even though they don’t really understand. If they think up the course of action they’ll be more likely to follow through.

Okay, so let’s review. We brought up the issue right away, leaned into the conflict (even if it went against our Minnesota Nice instincts), had a productive conversation, and came up with a course of action.

Now, isn’t that nice?

Send me a situation where you saw this play out and how you handled it. I’d love to hear and share your story.

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