Help  |  Pay an Invoice  |  My Account  |  CPE Log  |  Log in

How can you take constructive action understanding Minnesota Nice, diversity, equity and inclusion?

Michael A. Gregory, founder, Michael Gregory Consulting, LLC | August 2021 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated July 29, 2021

In light of Minnesota Nice, previous research, new insights from neuroscience and the murder of George Floyd, what steps can you take regarding niceness at work? This article provides you with insights to help you be further educated and action items to help you going forward.

What is Minnesota Nice?

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune,1 Minnesota Nice is:

“A cultural stereotype applied to the behavior of people from Minnesota implying residents are unusually courteous, reserved, mild-mannered and passive-aggressive. The phrase also implies polite friendliness, an aversion to open confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a direct fuss or stand out, apparent emotional restraint, and self-deprecation.”

I have heard it stated differently that Minnesotans want to be friendly, but do not necessarily want to be your friend. What does this say about engaging others honestly?

Initial article

In the August 2017 Footnote, I wrote an article titled, “How Minnesota Nice, conflict and leadership come together.”2 The article was the result of interviews solicited from 42 public companies and 15 of the largest private companies headquartered in Minnesota, and it provided some insights regarding Minnesota Nice and leadership, and led to a follow-up article.3 Some of the key conclusions of the Footnote article were:

  • Negative conflict is not a serious issue. Negative conflict can be very traumatic, but it’s not typical.
  • Organizations take annual surveys and discuss them. Executives break down questions into teams — 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 can tackle issues with real energy.
  • Naturally, there are conflicts with one another when working together 40-plus hours each 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.4
The past article did not address diversity, equity or inclusion, but now consider those statements in bold in light of the murder of George Floyd. Let’s dig a little deeper regarding the issues of “niceness.”
It is important to stay focused on what we can control, be humane, build trust, demonstrate compassion and be as transparent as possible.

Overview of the four stages of psychological safety

Recently I heard a live presentation5 by Dr. Timothy R. Clarke. I followed up with his firm, Leader Factor, to share with additional follow-up from his book, “The Four Stages of Psychological Safety.” As a broad overview, Clarke offers these four categories regarding safety at work:
  • Inclusive safety
  • Learner safety
  • Contributor safety
  • Challenger safety
It is important to simultaneously increase intellectual friction and, at the same time, decrease social friction. He comments that many organizational cultures “make nice” while at the same time not addressing underlying issues. This seems to tie in well to Minnesota Nice and concerns mentioned before.

Clarke indicates that, in many instances, “make nice” cultures simply keep up a smiling mentality over an underlying layer of fear or dysfunction. This can lead to poorer performance, poorer morale and greater turnover, while giving an appearance of harmony and alignment. This can be extremely dangerous for business while driving the truth underground.6

The negatives of  ‘making nice’

Organizations often pursue niceness to gain approval and to avoid conflict. Other secondary reasons may include to avoid punishment or retaliation, and to show deference to the chain of command and others. Clarke identified five results when niceness takes over with dysfunction. These are:
  • A crisis response once issues flair up instead of a proactive approach.
  • Choking divergent intellectual thinking. Early truth is kind; late truth is unkind.
  • Losing talent because your best and brightest will speak up, and when they cannot challenge the status quo they will leave.
  • Paralyzing decision-making when a low tolerance for candor muffles the ability to make timely decisions.
  • Conformity and learned helplessness, which lowers the bar for acceptable performance.7
  • Ambiguity becomes the norm and trust is eroded if veiled niceness continues. This has a direct impact on diversity, equity and inclusion, too.

What can you do?

Clarke provides these key points to overcome niceness in the workplace:
  • Clarify expectations, standards of performance and meeting types with an agenda sent out ahead of time clarifying the type of meeting up front.
  • Be open to challenging the status quo that you helped create. Model this behavior and encourage others to offer their ideas, affirming their initiative.
  • Protect those who are willing to speak up even if their ideas are not of high quality.
  • Hold people accountable and address performance problems immediately; be respectful and do this privately. Provide “feedforward” by addressing how we will approach these issues moving ahead. Be there to help, but at the same time realize the problems cannot continue.
  • Realize there is a healthy tension necessary for growth and promote that healthy tension.
Niceness may very well be a veneer covering dysfunction related to the organization. Think of this as a management challenge relating to diversity, equity and inclusion. Who is included? How are they included? How are others reaching out and ensuring engagement to promote maximum potential? How do you demonstrate and respect everyone? How do others know that they belong and have a sense of safety? Realize you will make mistakes. This is a process. Apply this process to make a meaningful contribution. Encourage others to challenge you.

If you build on a foundation of inclusion, this will increase intellectual friction and keep social friction down. Rather than a superficial niceness, healthy debates on issues based on their merits will unfold. Remain open-minded, open-hearted and challenge others to bring up their ideas and share their abilities with others. If your people do not feel they can challenge constructively, the best will not stick around.

Embrace the uncomfortable area

Expanding on the original article while considering diversity, equity, and inclusion, exploring not only Minnesota Nice, but niceness in general, consider expanding your own education and engaging with others outside of your comfort zone. By moving into this uncomfortable area, you will make some mistakes; but by continually focusing on improvement, you will also enhance your abilities, skills and knowledge while promoting intellectual friction, becoming more productive, more profitable, and experiencing more pleasure.

Michael Gregory is the founder of Michael Gregory Consulting, LLC. He is a professional speaker, mediator, author and consultant. You may reach him at or 651-633-5311.

Related CPE

Visit for details and registration.

21WA-2233: 6 Strategies to Promote Diversity and Inclusion In Your Workplace (Webinar)
Aug. 25 | 9–9:55 a.m. | 1 CPE

21WX-1561: Corporate Ethics Cases in Diversity and Inclusion (Webinar)
Sept. 17 | 9–10 a.m. | 1 CPE

21WX-1696: Unconscious Bias With Dr. Toby Groves (Webinar)
Sept. 30 | 1–2 p.m. | 1 CPE

2    Michael A. Gregory, “How Minnesota Nice, conflict and leadership come together.” Minnesota Footnote. August 2017. 8-9.
4    “How Minnesota Nice conflict and leadership come together.”
6    Timothy R. Clarke, founder and CEO, of Leader Factor and author of “The Four Stages of Psychological Safety”
7    Ibid