A business case for nice.

I’ve been reading a bit lately about how nice people get passed by for promotion in business because they’re not seen as competent or powerful. They’re not seen as the players that can make things happen as well as someone who doesn’t treat their teams or colleagues as well.  Apparently, power comes from putting others down, asserting superiority and having a commanding presence.

Based on experience, I do think there’s a lot of validity to this argument. Leading by fear can work to a point. And certainly exhibiting supreme confidence on the job is attractive.

But I really hate to think that you cannot succeed by treating people well. By showing respect, compassion and being basically a nice person. I think with nice leaders their strength and power is more subtle. It’s often hard to put a finger on. So we gravitate to the obvious power plays when looking for examples of strong leadership.

Nice often gets a bad rap. It’s seen as soft, frivolous and slow to get results. Yes, it can be. But being nice doesn’t mean you don’t have a backbone. It doesn’t mean you’re not confident and self-assured.

To be successful requires confidence and a willingness to take a stand even if others disagree with you. But you can still be nice about it. Not phony. But matter-of-fact, grounded, and open minded. It takes a sense of confidence to be willing to show vulnerability and admit when you’re wrong. And to me this is a powerful quality.

An example of nice in action is Zappos. I just finished Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh and find this proof that nice works. It was more powerful than I thought – the lengths they go to wow customers and treat their employees and vendors with respect. That there’s room for both sides to win. They worked hard to earn their success. It was not a certainty and there were many opportunities to fail. Yet they persevered to become wildly successful.

The board didn’t always like the nice. They wanted a focus on selling shoes over treating their employees so well. Yet it’s because these employees are treated well that they’re successful. Makes it easy to wow customers because of a passion for the company. You don’t get that with a sledgehammer.

They also have high standards for who they hire and things you can be fired for. Namely, not living the core values of the company. Core values everyone can commit to and measure results against. They’re baked into the culture. It’s because of these core values and strong culture that they can be nice. Because they hire and train for it. If you don’t invest in your company culture, then I believe nice doesn’t work so well. In that case nice equates to insincerity. You don’t get the buy in and passion from your employees. Customers don’t get the wow treatment and thus are less loyal. Not to mention less likely to refer.

Zappos also had to go through layoffs at one point yet did so with grace and openness. They were not afraid to do what was necessary for the business ahead of time. That requires strength and a belief in the vision by everyone top to bottom. And didn’t require sacrificing being nice.

When you hire against solid core values, you make it easier to be nice in the long term. You build a sustainable competitive advantage that doesn’t require you to be mean and underhanded.

Nice pays dammit. I refuse to think it doesn’t. Read Delivering Happiness and tell me if you don’t believe that. I know you can also find many examples when the opposite leads to success. Just don’t confuse nice with weak or flaky.  They’re too different things entirely.



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