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Stop being so nice

Stop being nice
(Leo Lintang / Fotolia)

I was taught to be polite. I've gotten gifts I didn't like, but I said I did. I've eaten meals that weren't great, but I said they were.

Manners have been around for centuries and shape our behaviors. They are a way of showing respect, and respect, of course, is important. First, being polite helps you not end up sad and alone. But it also creates opportunities. The more people who respect and like you, the more opportunities you'll have for friendships, work, etc.

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When I started a company though, I realized the problem with being polite.

Being polite may lead to more opportunities, but it doesn't lead to the best one: the opportunity to make something remarkable.

Great products create change. They're designed to do something different and much better than average. Politeness, meanwhile, is designed to keep things in order and to pull you toward average. But in business, average won't cut it.

There are thousands of decisions you make when you build a company. If you're too polite in those decisions, your team won't create something great. You'll be afraid to say when a product stinks. You'll be scared to disagree with a company process. Gossip will happen. You'll say "yes" to things that aren't good enough and the opportunity to be great will close.

In fact, there's proof that politeness hurts performance. A 2010 survey by the Corporate Executive Board of more than 4,000 employees found that companies who rate highly on open communication returned an average of 270 percent more in value over 10 years than other companies.

Pixar is one of the most successful animation studios ever; their films rake in millions and win tons of awards. And they don't do it by being nice.

According to Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, Pixar's creativity is a product of the environment that's been created — one of healthy debate and honesty. As Catmull says, when it comes to critiquing work at Pixar, "Nobody pulls any punches to be polite."

It's easier to be polite than to say what's on your mind. Confrontation is uncomfortable, especially when there's a lot on the line. And in business, there's a lot on the line: your livelihood, money, relationships and happiness.

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If, at my business, we say "we are an honest company," we can't assume that everyone will instantly be comfortable being honest. Simply due to human nature and society, that won't be the case.

If one of my teammates feels it's easier to speak his or her mind with a friend than with me, we've failed. There will be some people who find it harder to be brutally honest than others. But it's up to everyone, especially company leaders, to set up an environment that makes people feel they can be honest.

If we pull from Pixar's playbook, here are three ways you can design honesty into your company:

Make it safe to tell the truth

If people who are seen as leaders in your company seem too aggressive, people will feel scared to disagree. Pixar aims to create a safe place for debate by making meeting reviews honest, not personal. It's all about making a better film.

"As soon as we said, 'This is purely peers giving feedback to each other,' the effectiveness of the review sessions dramatically improved," says Catmull. It's human nature to defend a personal threat. So it's important to say it's not personal at the start of every meeting until it becomes clearly implied.

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Show how to be honest without being a jerk

Every time you have a critique, add something that improves the idea.

Instead of saying, "That tagline doesn't work," say, "That tagline doesn't work. It feels too long. What if you removed the first two words?" This difference might seem small but it shows your aim is to improve the initial idea, not bash it.

Pass the mic

Let your team get in the habit of speaking about their ideas. Public speaking is a big fear for many, so start small. Do private one-on-one meetings. Then move to small groups.

Pixar has its team show works-in-progress daily and invites everyone to email what they liked, what they didn't and why to the creators. Catmull says, "Regardless of discipline or position, (everyone) gets to go at some point. We make a concerted effort to make it safe to criticize."

Too much politeness is one of the biggest problems in business today. It may not seem like a big deal but it's a silent killer.

Lots of people like to believe they say what they think. But in reality, most people don't. We assume everyone can overcome the discomfort of brutal honesty. As a CEO, I might feel comfortable saying anything to anyone. But that doesn't matter. What matters is how I help all our teammates feel comfortable challenging any idea — and sticking up for their own.

This is the only way we'll make exceptional work together.

Mikael Cho is the founder of Crew, an online marketplace that connects designers and developers with curated projects.

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