Design is a team sport: designers work together and interact with customers, colleagues, teams, and stakeholders. Collaboration doesn’t always come easy. Interpersonal skills can be measured not only by the success of the project but also by the happiness of the design team. And a happy team is a productive team. Indeed, at times I feel like being a designer is being a therapist, an interpreter, and a detective — all at once.
For businesses, design is a productive effort that aims to return profit. This means more pressure on collaboration between business people, engineering teams, legal teams, and creatives. Sometimes industry jargons can clash like different languages — or cultures. In that moment, design can be the flexible matter that brings everyone working together by visualizing the shared goals and vision. But at the same time, designers can get caught in the crossfire of conflicting interests and feel unvalued or even attacked.
For two years, the tech giant Google researched what makes a team at Google successful. One of the top three most important factors they identified was “psychological safety.” This means that the team members feel safe sharing their ideas and work with each other, that they can expect to be treated with respect, and feel comfortable about being vulnerable in front of each other. As a result, team members know they can take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed. Critiquing sessions with multiple rounds of feedback — and even failing in front of others — are a big part of designers’ work. In addition to their immediate team, designers often showcase their work for larger groups of stakeholders or clients revealing their thinking and designs that sometimes are in very early, uncultivated stages. On top of that, designers sometimes feel personally attached to the work we do and criticism can feel difficult to take in.
Naturally, if we are afraid of being ridiculed or judged harshly we’ll easily default in not taking risks in our work, but want to play it safe to protect ourselves and to make sure we get treated well. And it might happen entirely unconsciously. At Google, they realized that taking risks is an important part of innovating, so they wanted to make sure their employees felt comfortable exploring uncharted territories and taking the necessary risks to do that. So, they declared psychological safety as one of the key elements of their corporate culture.
“Psychological safety” sounds fancy and complicated. But really it just means that we are nice to each other. Unfortunately, “being nice” has a bad rap in our culture that embraces competition and associates niceness to soft, more feminine or submissive values. It’s time to start appreciating niceness as what it really is: a part of successful leadership and an enabler of innovation.
What does it mean to be nice?
It can be difficult to shake off the “pushover” label of being nice. Little girls are told to be nice, so it possibly can’t be an important skill of a successful professional. This is how we are used to thinking about niceness. After battling for over a decade of professional experience with the label of a “nice designer” I am elated to read about Google’s research, and I agree with it. To help others adopt what it means to be nice, I put together the new rules of being nice:
1. Being nice is vital for productive design critique
Being nice doesn’t mean I won’t tell you what I think. And it certainly doesn’t mean I won’t give you honest feedback on your work. In fact, being nice means I want to help you be successful, and if I see you’ve created something that doesn’t work I will point that out. And it makes a big difference how I do that. Being nice and thoughtful in that situation can make the critiquing session feel like we are both sincerely invested in the outcome. And it will make us work together and truly collaborate. Giving thoughtful feedback takes a little practice, but the results are worth it.
2. Being nice doesn’t mean shying away from conflict
Being nice doesn’t mean I’m a pushover. I am still fully capable of disagreeing and standing my ground. When I disagree with you, I can do it in a calm confident manner without making you feel defensive. Being nice in a conflict means we both understand that issues disagree, not necessarily people. It means I am willing to take the time to have a conversation about the conflicting point of views, I am willing to make the effort of trying to understand where you are coming from. And I expect you do the same.
3. Being nice is a part of design leadership
Bullies don’t make good design leaders. Nor do dictators. A good design leader is respectful and empathetic. Being a nice leader doesn’t mean you don’t have high expectations for your team, or that you don’t hold your team members accountable. It means you’re able to understand where they’re coming from, direct them graciously, and lead by example. A nice creative leader is ready to get their hands dirty, when need be, and work alongside her team to help them be successful.
4. Being nice is not about maintaining the status quo
Nice people won’t rock the boat, right? Wrong. As we’ve already learnt, you can disagree, stand your ground, give constructive critique, and be a powerful design leader while being nice. You can be an agent of change while you’re also a nice person. In fact, creating a lasting, sustainable change requires a loyal following for the things you are advocating. An ability to get people to listen to you is invaluable. And more importantly, to have people not just to follow you, but to help you create and innovate that change requires that you exhibit the psychological safety that enables people to step outside their comfort zone and come up with creative ways the solve the same problems you are trying to solve. Remember, psychological safety fosters innovation.
5. Being nice gets shit done
Working across teams, business units, industries, and geographical areas requires communication skills like no other. It’s clear we need cultural sensitivity and understanding of different ways of working to be successful. And if we, on top of all that, can create a psychological safety zone by being honest, respectful, direct, empathetic, and open to hear others, we can become more efficient in the ways we work, and more successful with the outcomes.
6. Being nice is a design skill
Empathy is a core element of human centered design. It enables us to understand what our customers need, and how might we creatively solve their problems. In human centered design, research unlocks empathy: talking with the customers, listening to their feedback, and trying to understand their goals and pain points ignites the process in which we begin to step into someone else’s shoes. Empathy is also an innate motivator to be nice to others. And the more we practice empathy, the more prone we are to champion psychological safety. It’s a beautiful cycle of people being nice, efficient and creating great designs. Who doesn’t want that?