Does a Culture of “Nice” Sabotage Employee Engagement?


Gallup research shows that Minnesota has the lowest employee engagement levels of any state in the US. At the same time, according to recent data from CNBC, Minnesota ranks 15th overall in competitiveness for business and third for quality of life, after Hawaii and Vermont (who rank 50th and 32nd for competitiveness, respectively). As a resident of Minnesota, these stats have me wondering why the engagement levels are so low.

I’ve asked several Minnesota business leaders for their perspectives and have gotten widely different explanations. Here are four of the most common theories I’ve heard, as well as some of my thoughts on each of them. Whether you live here or not, I’d love to hear your take in the comments below.

1. Because quality of life is so high, people aren’t as concerned about their professional lives, and therefore are less engaged at work. But wouldn’t having a strong quality of life cause you to be happier and more engaged in every aspect of your life, including work?

2. There are more Fortune 500 companies (19) headquartered in Minnesota per capita than any other US state, which means many highly paid executives live in the state, causing a wider income gap. Though wouldn’t having several large companies in the community mean more opportunities for career growth and alignment with skills and interests?

3. Because most Minnesotans were born and raised in the state, those who’ve relocated here say it’s very hard to break into the community. This could limit relationship building and make workplaces feel less engaging. But at least ten other states have lower mobility rates with much higher employee engagement levels.

4. Two-thirds of Minnesotans come from German or Scandinavian heritage—traditionally considered more emotionally reserved cultures—which may limit the emotional connections someone might feel in a workplace. Would a generalization about two-thirds of the community’s personality style account for how people feel about work?

Perhaps the culture of personalities does matter. Here’s an interesting email I recently received:

As a non-native Minnesotan, I believe the culture of Minnesota “Nice” (appearing friendly on the surface) often adversely impacts engagement. An essential ingredient to being a successful manager is timely employee feedback. The Minnesota culture handcuffs some managers. For example, the controller for another company in our building had a few surprises in his performance review last month. The controller has had the same boss for 10+ years and is slated to become the CFO/COO when his boss retires. I believe the current CFO intended to provide “constructive feedback,” but the result was lower engagement and the controller is now testing the employment waters.

Clear blue sky

Research on keys to leadership development, particularly in today’s state of constant change, shows that one of the most important factors in the success of leaders is working in a culture that is straightforward, clear and helpful.

Perhaps communities are more engaging when they are transparent than when they are nice.

What do you think? Can a culture of “nice” sabotage employee engagement?

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6 Comments

  • Erik Beckler
    March 20, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    Matt, interesting post. I think there are some macro things at play as well as micro as it pertains to engagement in Minnesota.

    1. As Minnesota is considered a wonderful place to live (it is), do we look to have our experiences at work equal or exceed those in our personal life? Do we have higher expectations that aren’t being met?

    2. Given our heritage as pointed out in your #4, we are generally more reserved. However, I can’t imagine that we would expect more communication from our businesses than we are willing to give ourselves. Much of employee engagement comes at the group/department level (you love/hate your job because of your manager, not as much the company). If most of the people come from Minnesota (and I do believe it is much more open to non-Midwesterners than it was a decade ago) and they interact well with one another, wouldn’t that factor be minimized?

    3. I believe having more Fortune 500 companies makes it more difficult to be engaged. Even though we are reserved, we want and crave connection. Our connections may be fewer, but they likely go deeper. Large organizations such as Fortune 500 have troubles engendering a culture of connection, community and engagement simply because of their size and scope. Even though we may be connected reasonably well at the department level, we may see ourselves as small, indistinguishable and inconsequential cogs in a machine. Because we have quality in other parts of our lives, this aspect leaves us wanting.

    4. Even though we may be wanting in our jobs, I think we have a culture of sticking it out and bearing the ‘pain’. We don’t take ‘giving up’ or ‘quitting’ lightly. It might be part of our culture of ignoring the issues we have hoping they will just go away. When we are asked anonymously how we feel, however, we speak up. Maybe looking at turnover rates in various states might be instructive.

    Can ‘nice’ sabotage engagement? I don’t think so. Minnesota businesses are successful because of our ‘nice’ and hard-working culture. Minnesota businesses could to a great deal better with some changes in the way that businesses are more transparent and strive towards meeting the quality of life employees have in other parts of our lives.

    • normanblogger
      March 21, 2014 at 8:08 pm

      Insightful points Erik. Thank you. Someone I interviewed on this topic did mention the “get ‘er done” attitude sometimes common in Minnesota. That seems to line up with your fourth point about bearing the pain and just working through it. Perhaps an engagement survey surfaces some suppressed frustration as you say.

  • pamb
    April 1, 2014 at 2:13 am

    I am perhaps too enthusiastic an employee, coming up with ideas of how to improve our business (not very hard to do). My manager appreciates my enthusiasm, I know, but rarely implements any of my suggestions. When my ideas are suggested by more senior employees, she pays attention. I keep reminding myself that I don’t own the business, but it pains me to lose ground to a competitor for no reason except that the boss has blinders on. She is Minnesota Nice and I am Aggressive Chicago. I now tell myself that I can’t care more than the boss does, and am biding my time until I find something better.

    • normanblogger
      April 2, 2014 at 1:09 am

      Your passion for positive change in your company is inspiring. Thank you for your raw frustration about the lack of receptivity to your ideas. Perhaps moving on is the best strategy. Or perhaps an opportunity exists for you to stretch your influencing skills. Using thought-provoking questions with your manager might get him or her to come to the same conclusions that you have – and then he or she owns the ideas. And, working through other senior leaders might be a practical strategy to move your ideas. What do you think?

      • pamb
        April 2, 2014 at 4:31 am

        Thanks for your response, Norman! I think most of my frustration is that I was a manager, and I know how easily this business can be run/turned around. It’s retail, not rocket science. I’m obviously not privy to financial info, but I think management just doesn’t get it, and thus the Minnesota Nice without actually implementing anything. Another colleague has admitted that several recent improvements in the department were actually her idea, so I explained a few new ideas to her in the hopes that she will be able to work them into conversation. Yes, I might need to move on, but it pains me to give up when something can be fixed so easily.

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