Coach’s Corner Blog

What the Heck is “Midwestern Nice”?

September 27, 2013 by 1 Comment

Have you ever left a meeting where you wondered if you were the only one who could see what the true issue at hand was but no one else seemed to acknowledge it, much less speak about it?

I was working with a senior group of technical leaders at a top cable company and they were complaining bitterly about all the meetings they had to attend. It crowded out time in their day to do any “real” work. So I asked if they could attend fewer of these meetings to allocate more time for that “real” work. I also asked if they could make the meetings briefer and more efficient and effective.

Many of you are saying “Duh?” right about now, but there were issues of organizational culture that had seemed to limit the options in their eyes. The good news is that many of my clients did find ways to carve out more time for themselves by attending fewer meetings. But why was it so hard for them to address this?

This phenomenon is often referred to as the “Elephant in the Room” – this large creature that everyone fails to acknowledge despite its obvious presence. I have written about this in a piece called Dealing With the Elephants: Why We Fail to Confront the Obvious. In that piece I mention the following reasons people fail to mention the Elephant:

  • No one else seems to be aware of it or concerned but me.
  • I’m afraid how this might impact me if I bring it up – whose toes might I be stepping on?
  • It’s not worth it right now – the project is too far along or my suggestion might be too disruptive.

I also mention some ways you can deal with the elephants and I hope you find it useful.

Another, more benign, but still disruptive cause for ignoring the elephants recently came to light as well. I just completed an engagement with a start-up company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was referred to them by the lead venture capital investor to see if I could help this company’s leader and his team connect better. They have a game changing medical technology that is very exciting and small team, appropriate for this stage of a venture company. The team is comprised of folks with deep industrial, medical, academic and software experience, with additional strong skill sets in program management and government relations. It is a strong talent mix.

Using one of my team assessment tools, we collected input from each member of the team about what behaviors they valued from each other and also what behaviors were less helpful. Each team member then completed a “Contract” about one or two behavioral changes they were going to make and commit to. We did our follow-up last week and the whole process seemed to be very productive in making the team more cohesive and effective. One issue did come up and that’s where the concept of “Midwestern Nice” comes in.

The team felt this process got them to voice concerns that they would not have even though the issues were right there – they were elephants, although mainly smaller, and more modest in size and variety. I define “Midwestern Nice” as a tendency, more prevalent here in the center of the country, to be less assertive and confrontational about issues or concerns. This is often a norm of the organization’s culture but it also reflects a less aggressive interpersonal style than you see in many leaders, and people, from the Northeast and West Coast.

This is not a bad thing, per se, but when I mentioned this to the team in question, the concept seemed to really resonate with them as well. Their situation was complicated due to several other factors that left several elephants in the shadows:

  • They were a new team and the norms of how to have effective debates and disagreements have not all been established yet;
  • Some of the team with primarily medical and academic experiences had not been exposed to some of the pressures that cause these elephants to be dragged to the forefront, like the financial reality of running out of capital for a venture firm (not happening here);
  • There are skills associated with effective conflict resolution and those behaviors need to be modeled from the top down and set as an organizational skill set.

I encourage you to review my Dealing With the Elephants article and welcome your thoughts.

Good luck in slaying some elephants today!


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    tim zeffiro September 28, 2013, 5:25 pm

    Great! TRUE AS TRUE can be! Good article for the clients to use as food for thought!


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