I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan which is in the Midwest. So, we have an extra helping of “Midwest Nice” often referred to as “West Michigan Nice”. West Michigan Nice is a behavioral paradigm often seen when conflict or challenging others toward better behavior is purposefully avoided, then accompanied with “I didn’t want to make them feel bad” as the reason for doing so. The problem is, when we don’t address conflict head on, we actually hurt the other individual, rather than help them. Intuitively we know this to be true, yet we avoid the conflict anyway. We do so because we’re trying to overcome this mental hurdle: How do I challenge others without coming across as a jerk?
It was shortly after 9/11, and I was standing at a red light with my new Golden Retriever puppy, Belvedere. Getting Belvedere was the thing I had done to comfort myself and the people I worked with after 9/11. Belvedere was also where I most often turned for comfort, taking long walks with me and serving as an endlessly absorbent kleenex, as I was getting out of a bad relationship that had been consuming me for seven years. It’s impossible to exaggerate how much I adored–and depended on–that little fluff of reddish fur. And there’s nothing like emotional bondage to create the conditions for Ruinous Empathy. I never said a cross word to Belvedere, and she was absolutely untrained and undisciplined. As I was standing there, she tugged at the leash and almost wound up under the tires of a taxi roaring by. I pulled her back at the last moment, head over heels.
“If you don’t teach that dog to sit, she’s going to die!” said the tall bearded man in blue jeans standing next to me. He pointed at the ground, bent down to get in Belvy’s face, and bellowed at her, “SIT!!” To my astonishment, Belvy sat. She didn’t just sit, she pounded her butt into the pavement, and looked up at the man wagging her tail. The man was in my face now. “See? It’s not mean, it’s clear.” (You can read the original post here). This story illustrates a simple truth: When we engage in conflict for the benefit of someone else, when we truly have their best in mind, it’s an act of selflessness. Conversely, when we avoid conflict because more concerned about how it will make me feel, it’s an act of selfishness. The best leaders act on behalf of what’s best for others, not themselves. This includes challenging others for their well-being. It’s not mean, it’s clear.