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Review of  Nice Teams Finish Last, Secret to Unleashing Your Team’s Maximum Potential by Brian Cole Miller

By Patricia E. Moody, [email protected]

Sometimes the truth hurts.  And unfortunately for work teams, being nice isn’t always the best way for team members to uncover problems and to effectively resolve them. Team leaders, coaches, human resource professionals, as well as team members will find this book refreshingly truthful and useful in a non-destructive way. 

Take disagreement and confrontations, for instance.  What great team does not, at least at the beginning of its life, need good disagreements – indeed truth-telling – and bold challenges “to the way we’ve always done it?”  That’s where author Brian Cole Miller warns team members that conflict and disagreements can take on a destructive life of their own.  We expect healthy team discussions on day 1, but we shrink from them at the end game. 

So what does it take for a team to speak truth and invite dialogue – two of Miller’s four recommendations for working your way out of “Nice?”  First, says Miller, effective teams require an atmosphere that allows members to speak their own truth clearly and objectively, in a way that others can hear and understand, and second, all team members invite others to talk, listen, and work together to reach a workable resolution.  What Miller does not recommend for work teams is “playing nice – ”  placating with untrue feedback, for instance, or shouting down bold and risky moves.  The author uses real life scenarios drawn from his 25 years of experience to illustrate when “nice” doesn’t cut it.

Although I’ve long been a fan of self-directed work teams and group work, coming from a hardcore manufacturing background I still recognize and respect that down and dirty need for leadership to occasionally take over and run the project.  It doesn’t mean that team members have no valid contributions to make, it just means that the situation – the market, the competition,  the deadlines, even shareholder demands – leave little time or room for team building or team learning.  When we first started working with teams back in the 80’s, I felt they were a natural reaction to the problems inherent in hierarchical organizations’ attempts to run groups prone to emergencies and loopbacks, all typical manufacturing issues.  But somewhere in the ensuing 20 years we became compulsively enamored of all things team – team meetings, team training, team learning, team evaluations, team celebrations, team process, team funerals – and I think we in manufacturing went to far.  In the name of productivity and effectiveness, It’s time to pull back and Brian Cole Miller’s recommendations are a sound step in that direction.

Miller advocates making tough requests of teammates without coming across as demanding or dictatorial.  If there is indeed a way to ensure performance by making the right demands, then we in manufacturing welcome it because what we need now is not necessarily more self-conscious “Niceness.”  What we need – and what everybody wants – is the most effective way to organize humans to complete hard jobs.  If it’s not Frederick Taylor’s scientific management methods, or the 80’s extreme team-building, then it could just be a humane combination of enlightened tough leadership, and empowered and educated teamwork.  I’d like to think that North American producers have successfully passed through our worshipful  fascination with team structures in favor of a more effective application of whatever works, even if it’s a combination of strong teams and decisive leadership,  to meet the market.    

Read this book if your teams have lost their “umph,” if you want to jumpstart good team efforts and make team members’ work really count. If you can take the truth, and work with it, you’ll find Miller’s process recommendations effective and powerful. If you’re stuck on “nice,” it’s time for a little team rework.   


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