With spring here, communities across the United States are experiencing severe weather. Our hearts go out to communities in Mississippi that were hit hard last week by an EF-4 tornado. I take heart though, knowing that immediately after these storms, nonprofits and government workers show up, ready to help and rebuild.

This is one of the reasons I love my work – people who work in the social sector are the nicest people you can find. They are always asking about you before ever asking for what they need.

But, while this niceness is usually a strength, it can also sometimes be an obstacle to progress in our organizations. If this resonates with you, keep reading to learn more about how to manage conflict to build better solutions while setting appropriate boundaries.

Tension is a good thing

Social sector leaders are the experts in their issues area, but I often see CEOs and staff underplay their expertise as they work alongside influencers, either because they are intimidated by the power structure or they are being polite. In this case, it doesn’t serve either party. In order for the best ideas to surface, all ideas must be shared, and inevitably tension precedes resolution and a better outcome for all. Instead of seeing this tension as a tug-of-war between two ideas, try picturing it as a blanket that you are trying to smooth out together to cover the most area. You have to pull in your direction for the idea to work.

Assumptions kill relationships

Social sector leaders are moving in so many directions that we often make assumptions about what others know and how they will react. It often puts the other person in the role of a mind reader and can kill even the strongest relationships. Try instead to “clarify and confirm” with the other person. If you don’t understand something perfectly, ask for clarification on words used, timeline or expectations. Once you believe that you understand their meaning, repeat your interpretation as well as preferred plan of action back to them. The other person will either confirm that you have it right or give additional guidance. While this may take more time upfront, it actually saves time in the long run and helps build a two-way relationship.

Stop being a right-fighter

Dr. Phil famously asked, “Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?” When our clients get discouraged about funder expectations or changes in the community, we borrow from this and ask, “Would you rather be right or make progress?” We often find nonprofits spinning their wheels on “being right,” instead of asking themselves how they can make a difference in their current situation. The truth is nonprofit leaders do not control most of what happens in the social sector, so they often must adapt to changing circumstances. In addition, when you focus on assigning blame to “who is wrong,” the community perceives you as negative and tunes out your voice. When you focus on progress, you are seen as progressive and positive. Try instead to always negotiate between when to fight to be right and when to find solutions.

As a sector, our niceness is an important quality to navigate. But we need to consider when it works for us by attracting people to our passion and work and when it leads to passive-aggressive tendencies that get in the way of progress. As Confucius said, “He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.” If you can find that balance, we all win. Please share with us your examples of not letting niceness get in the way of progress.


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