How Minnesota Nice, conflict and leadership come together

Janel Dressen, attorneys | August 2017 Footnote

We've all heard of it and, if you're a Minnesota native, you're likely guilty of it. I'm talking about being "Minnesota Nice."

For the most part, Minnesota Nice isn't disruptive in our day-to-day work. However, as a leader, do you ever find yourself in a conflict situation where being Minnesota Nice isn't so nice?

This question was the inspiration for my research project. Over a few months, I reached out to all 42 public Minnesota-headquartered companies and 15 of the largest privately-owned headquartered companies in Minnesota. In all, 418 CEOs and senior executives were contacted, leading to 29 conversations. The initial questions I asked often turned into 90-minute conversations about how Minnesota Nice, conflict in Minnesota-headquartered companies and leadership come together.

Interestingly, out of all the conversations I had, there are some overall trends worth noting. Understanding these elements and best practices can make us and our clients better leaders.

What is Minnesota Nice?

As most know, Minnesota Nice is the stereotypical behavior of people from Minnesota to be courteous, reserved and mild-mannered. But there is more to this definition, via Wikipedia, for us to consider:

"The cultural characteristics of Minnesota Nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation. Critics have pointed out negative qualities, such as passive aggressiveness and resistance to personal change."

So, perhaps all is not rosy in Lake Wobegon. Although we have learned historically from Garrison Keillor and "A Prairie Home Companion" that "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average," as a stereotype of Minnesotans, this doesn't quite fit.

Minnesota Nice in the workplace

When it comes to corporate governance, the bottom line, client satisfaction, employee satisfaction, leadership, training and opportunity, what role (if any) does Minnesota Nice play?

The following was pointed out and shared with participants regarding conflict, civility and engagement, ahead of my questioning to them:

  • America has a civility problem. Sixty-three percent of Americans believe that we have a major civility problem and 71 percent believe it is getting worse.1
  • Research shows that 60--80 percent of all difficulties in organizations stem from strained relationships between employees, not from deficits in individual employee's skill or motivation.2
  • The typical manager spends 25--40 percent of his or her time dealing with workplace conflicts. That's one to two days of every work week.3
  • Fortune 500 senior executives spend 20 percent of their time in litigation activities.4
  • Fifty-one percent of employees are not engaged at work.5

Participants were asked, "In what ways is conflict an issue for you and your organization?"

Overall, Minnesota leaders had this to say:

  • Negative conflict is not a serious issue. As a whole, open negative conflict can be very traumatic, but it's not typical.
  • Organizations take annual surveys and discuss them. Executives break down questions into teams of six with parties that have ownership on issues, and have them work difficult tasks together. This helps diffuse negative conflict and helps small groups to come to a resolution that is workable. The small groups are able to tackle issues with real energy.
  • Naturally, there are conflicts with one another when working together 40-plus hours a week. The keys are developing relationships personally, listening to one another, asking questions, and listening to what is and isn't being said. It's so important to get to know everyone on the team and address minor areas of conflict before they grow into major areas of conflict.
  • It is important to stay focused on what we can control, be humane, build trust, demonstrate compassion and be as transparent as possible.

Healthy approaches to conflict

Conflict is not inherently bad. Rather, how we approach conflict can be very healthy or unhealthy. The following themes and conclusions emerged from my conversations with Minnesota executives about how effective leaders address conflict.

An overwhelming majority of those interviewed believe that employees want to do a good job. Therefore, leadership needs to be open and honest with all employees to help them achieve greatness. Overall, there is a genuine interest in doing this with each other to come up with reasonable solutions.

Several respondents shared about coming into situations where fear was a major concern. That can be crippling. It's important that leaders not let their fears -- real or imaginary -- prevent them from helping employees become a better team. Everyone makes mistakes. When they are made, leaders need to create an environment that allows for openness, honesty and learning. Rather than use feedback, use "feed-forward." Feed-forward means giving people suggestions for the future. This demonstrates that you are there to help. Leaders need to be there to help.

Some leaders were concerned there was not enough conflict, and that parts of the organization were too comfortable in their own silos. Collaboration is at its best when there is spirited debate. Otherwise, the team won't consider different perspectives or think outside of the box.

Some of the companies I contacted have highly-tenured employees who know each other very well and understand the norms of their organizations. They have learned how to avoid conflict with one another. This may be related to Minnesota Nice and what critics have pointed out as negative qualities, such as passive aggressiveness and resistance to personal change. If this is the workplace's culture, being direct is not always looked upon favorably. Companies with this problem tended to be in the minority, but it is something to be aware of -- in particular with the more seasoned workforce that has not necessarily had to address major change. With the anticipation of succession planning, this needs to be addressed or new hires may be only short lived in this environment.

Overall, punishment was not an option. Rather, promoting positive interactions is the way of the future. And, if someone is toxic, that needs to be addressed directly.

Continue to consider multiple perspectives

These are some of the key elements regarding Minnesota Nice, conflict and leadership, along with some best practices for consideration. We may not be at Lake Wobegon, and we do have our faults, but we are also a can-do workforce that is made up of hardworking folks who bring elements of compassion, caring and consideration along with the bottom line. It is important that we continue to understand multiple perspectives, address conflict and enhance our effectiveness in our competitive and diverse world

Mike Gregory is the founder of Michael Gregory Consulting, LLC, a firm that helps organizations understand multiple perspectives, address conflict and negotiate winning solutions. You may reach him at mg@mikegreg.com or 651-633-5311. 

1 Civility in America - Weber Shandwick 2013

2 Daniel Dana, "Managing Differences: How to Build Better Relationships at Work and Home" (2005, 4th ed.); Barbara J. Kreisman, "Insights into Employee Motivation, Commitment and Retention" (2002).

3 Washington Business Journal, May 2005.

4 Mediate.com.

5 Gallup.com 2015