The 'Be Nice' Corporate Culture Failure

Lindsey Novak on

Q: I worked in field sales for a large company and worked on my MBA simultaneously. My life was exciting in New York City, but when I finished my degree, I was offered an unbeatable job in California. It's quite a feat to uproot your life to move across country, but the money and opportunity was too great to refuse. My friends told me not to go, but I wouldn't listen.

When I started, I was told that the most important thing to do was to be nice to everyone, to always make sure that people are happy and to never say no to anyone's request. Nothing was said about performance -- ever. I noticed no one was given guidance, instructions, support or even information on a project. The unspoken message was "Everyone's smart, so figure it out without asking how." It was insane.

I then found out that "be nice" and "never say no" were not the truth about everyone's behavior. They were not nice; they were all passive-aggressive. If someone told me they needed something done, I was not allowed to say no. What I was told to do was to say to the person, "If I do what you'd like me to do for you, which project do you want me to not do?" That's right. We were instructed to force the colleague to choose which project should not be completed in order to make room for their project. So, ultimately, no one would take responsibility for something not being done because the person could pin it on someone else. The entire department was run this way. Everyone mistook being passive-aggressive for being nice. And no one took responsibility because they blamed the choice on the other person.

Moving across the country was a hassle, but it was nothing compared to working in this insane environment. I had to leave before I went insane, too. Throughout my interviewing process, not one person even hinted at such a philosophy. I don't know what I could have asked to have detected it. Even now, I don't know if any of them know what passive aggressive behavior is. It was a joy to return home, where communication and responsibility are clear and information is precise. The residual of this experience is that I'm concerned about my ability to foresee underlying tendencies. How did my friends know it wouldn't work? Is this a known difference in corporate cultures between working in the East and the West?

A: Corporate culture is established by upper management, and every industry is different. It's hard to imagine a CEO or vice president would have intentionally created such an emotionally twisted environment. Passive-aggressive can be defined as "denoting or pertaining to a personality or behavior marked by the expression of negative emotions in passive, indirect ways, as through manipulation or noncooperation." Your example of employees not being allowed to say "no" and being told to make the requester choose which project should be dropped to make time for the additional work falls into the passive-aggressive category. It may be the result of an emotionally upset department head who has been blamed for a subordinate's failure to complete a project. Its application over an entire department sounds absurd, but this is what can happen when a company places emotionally immature employees in management positions.


Unfortunately, not all personality types are transparent -- and certainly not in the interviewing process. You are correct in concluding that passive-aggressive behavior is not nice but instead an insidious form of manipulation and indirect control. You were wise to leave that environment by resigning from the job, even though you thought moving across the country for a second time was your only option.

Many industries adopt preferred management styles, but passive-aggressive should never be one of them, and it doesn't apply to the entire western region of the U.S. If you had wanted to effect a change for the future, you could have documented your manager's initial instructions on how to behave in the department, along with each passive-aggressive situation you experienced there, and turned it to the head of human resources in an exit interview.

Email your workplace issues and experiences to For more information about career and life coach Lindsey Novak, visit, and for past columns, see



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