On Being Nice

You’re just nice,
You’re not good,
You’re not bad,
You’re just nice.
I’m not good,
I’m not nice,
I’m just right.

This lyric is from Stephen Sondheim musical, Into the Woods. They are sung by the character of the witch near the end of the play. She is extolling the other characters for not being willing to sacrifice one of them for the sake of the others. In her mind, the lives of the many outweigh the life of the one.

These words come rolling back to me whenever I teach one particular section of a class we call the Sage Consulting Academy. The topic is authenticity in consulting and the concept described by Peter Block in his book, Flawless Consulting, defines authenticity as “putting into words what you are experiencing.”

Authenticity is quite different from honesty. Block believes, as do I, that authenticity is the prime directive of consultants.

Let me give an example:

You show up at initial meeting of a new project. The project’s economic buyer has delegated the work to a subordinate. During the meeting this person says, “This project should not take long. A few weeks and you will be done. I don’t have much time to spend on it, but my assistant can give you some help. Don’t take too much time from my people; they have a ton of work to do already.”

You feel completely unimportant because you have been trivialized. This is what you do for a living, but to them you are an interruption.

The non-authentic response would be to say, “This project has far reaching implications. Your boss wants this done, you know.” Notice that this is a true statement. It is certainly honest, but it is not authentic.

Block says the authentic consultant response is to put your emotions into words in an unemotional way. In short, take what you are feeling and turn it into a statement of fact. So an example of the authentic response would be, “You are treating this project as unimportant and trivial. If this is an interruption, we should reassess the timing. If not, I would like you to treat it with more importance.”

Notice the first part of the statement expresses the feelings you have as a fact.

When I share this concept it always stirs up a ton of controversy. “I can’t do that!” Most say, “It is not nice.”

Being a professional is not about being liked, it is not about being nice. It is about doing what is right for the customer. Allowing someone to trivialize your work, while insulting to you, is also not right for the customer. In this case, the economic buyer is the customer.

It is not nice, it is just right.

If anyone has any thoughts on this I welcome comments and questions.

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