Around a month ago when a successful leader at work proclaimed ‘throughout my career I’ve been told I’m too nice,’ it resonated with me. Numerous times there’d been less than subtle hints from higher leadership along similar lines aimed at me.
Reflecting on her revelation it’s clear; like it or not, we’ve all been hard wired to believe that in business ‘nice’ is somehow a negative characteristic. But why? Aside from the murky world of dating, where ‘nice’ is often used as a backhanded compliment in the absence of more thrilling impressions, ‘nice’ is encouraged. We tell our children to be nice to each other, we strive to be nice to our friends, family and strangers and look down on others that don’t meet such expectations. So why should business be different? Ultimately it’s a term that’s welded to the out-of-date hierarchical set-ups of the past where dictatorial, non-people focused methods were inherent in business, and any other approaches or deviation from this path was seen as weak. In many cases, it still is. Well, it’s my intention to reclaim ‘nice’, to bring it back in the fold of positive business traits, not because it seems the right thing to do but because ultimately, it’s a benefit that leads to more inclusive, collaborative, productive business practices and outcomes.
To be clear, nice doesn’t mean weak, it doesn’t mean afraid of conflict or lacking conviction. Nice doesn’t mean you roll over at the first sign of trouble or you shy away from difficult conversations. Nice people actually prosper in such circumstances; it’s nicer to be honest with someone rather than fudge them with unconstructive feedback. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve seen many people who may be termed ‘ruthless’ often deal with difficult circumstances by either ignoring them or confronting it like a bull in a china shop. Nice doesn’t mean not having high expectations of others and not making them accountable for not fulfilling their potential, again, it means the opposite; nice is to ask people to aim high and maximise their talent.
We’ve all had leaders and colleagues that are without doubt, not nice. That intimidating leader who creates an atmosphere that means everyone breathes a sigh of relief when they have a day off or a holiday. The colleague that fires off demanding, bruising e-mails that rub everyone up the wrong way. The scathing senior manager who’ll tear a presenter apart, piece by agonising piece leaving a destroyed shell of a human in place of a productive employee. How are these models effective? What is gained other than a power trip for the ego, a small, pathetic victory of dominance? It’s not effective business practice, it’s poisonous. Even worse, put two people who work along these lines on the same project or committee and you have complete disaster; more disagreements for disagreements sake, bad decision making and the ebbing away of the true means to get to an end goal. Above all it’s an utter waste of time and energy.
That’s not to say that ‘nice’ people are perfect; yes, the benefit of the doubt may be given too much occasionally; but that’s less harmful than shutting people down or minimising their qualities as ruthless people do. The amount of so-called ‘high achieving’ selfish, downright nasty people who rapidly climb the Corporate ladder causing mayhem and broken relationships is staggering. And also completely unproductive in the long term as broken relationships do not correlate with productive business.
Despite this, and the example of Donald Trump’s rise Republican Presidential candidate is an obvious one, a huge number of people correlate ruthlessness and nastiness with effective business behaviour. Yet at the same time we long for a nice boss when we don’t have one and occasionally people’s guard slip; often when I ask about what someone in the company is like, people respond; ‘well, he/she is really nice’ and oh so briefly they slip into their default nature; nice is good. Well, that subconscious, almost primal relationship based instinct should be encouraged. Nice is good. Nice works, nice gets shit done. Be nice people. Please.