Nice guys finish last?

  Donald Trump being interviewed by Sean Hannity last week, said of a leading political figure: "he is just not a nice person." Trump continued to talk of his expertise in judging people and knowing when someone is nice or isn't. (He did not comment on where he himself fits on the spectrum of niceness.) So I started to reflect on what we mean when we say someone is nice or isn't, and whether niceness is a factor in leadership. A few days after Trump's comment I came across Professor Art Markman's thought-provoking Hufpost article, The Upside and Downside of Being Nice at Work, followed by a great Twitter conversation with him, @abmarkman, about it. In the article about how being nice affects your work life, Art sites a paper: Timothy Judge, Beth Livingston and Charlice Hurst in the February 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In a series of studies, they were interested in three questions. First, does being nice affect your success at work? Second, does being nice affect your happiness at work? Third, do the effects of being nice differ for men and women?
Equating niceness with agreeableness, the study found that: who were high in the trait of agreeableness made substantially less money than men who were low in agreeableness. In some studies, this difference was as much as $10,000 per year. In contrast, women were much less affected by agreeableness.
On the other hand Professor Markman notes the trade-off:
Overall, people high in agreeableness were happier at work than those who were low in agreeableness. So, there is a tradeoff. The factors that may lead you to make more money may also make you less happy.

I was troubled by the findings of Judge, Livingston and Hurst. Do you have to be nasty to move up the American corporate ladder? Are nice people really penalized in American business? It just didn't align with my own research of effective leaders for Lead By Greatness, nor with my experience of some exceptional leaders of large corporations with whom I have worked. Think of people who have inspired you and changed your life, how many of them would you consider as not nice people? In putting these concerns to Professor Markman on Twitter, he commented, correctly, that "It is hard to be critical and nice at the same time. Being critical means telling people things they don't want to hear."

After reflection, the issue seems to revolve around what we mean when we describe people as nice. Art and the study defined nice as agreeable and I think that is what many people think, certainly in American culture, when they use the word nice to describe someone. Herein lies the leadership challenge: If you consider nice to mean agreeable, then Art is absolutely right; it is hard to be agreeable and critical at the same time, it is hard to have hard conversations with others if you strive to be agreeable. Being agreeable means that it is important to you that others agree with your views and with what you are saying. It might be so important that you modify, or at least sugar-coat what you say so as not to jar people, or that you keep your thoughts and feeling to yourself for fear of being considered disagreeable. This personality trait of agreeableness will inhibit your leadership effectiveness and maybe your effectiveness in other meaningful relationships as well. There is another way to define nice, though.

Why can a caring parent, partner or friend criticize us without compromising our opinions of them as being nice? The reason is that when we trust the person criticizing us we accept their criticism even if it hurts. When you criticize someone who trusts you will not damage their relationship with you nor will your criticism cause them to downgrade you to being not nice (at least not for more than a few minutes). To criticize someone effectively they need to trust that you genuinely care about them and that your criticism is motivated by your love for them and not by your own egoistic insecurities.

Effective hard conversations and constructive criticism then rest on a premise of love (yes, nowadays it's OK to use the L-word even in business), trust and authentic caring for people. If to you, being nice means being agreeable, then your progress in the business world will be hampered and your leadership effectiveness will be impaired. On the other hand if you are disagreeable, then your influence will depend only on your status and the power you wield. Disagreeable people are bullies not leaders.

However, if being nice means that you are trusted as someone who authentically loves others and cares about their wellbeing, you can challenge people, push their boundaries and criticize their negative actions and attitudes without diminishing your leadership effectiveness. The highly successful leaders I mentioned earlier are super-nice people who make no effort to distort or compromise their opinions in order to appear agreeable. They can be direct and harsh, but they are so secure in themselves as human beings that the caring they radiate makes you trust their intentions even when their words are harsh.

Here are three checks to improve the effectiveness of your hard conversations:

  • Check if your deeper motivation is to make them feel small or to help them rectify a deficiency that, in addition to harming others, is also not serving them. Merely being mindful of this question before you criticize, will uplift the tone of your communication and enhance its impact.
  • Check how much of your day and week is dedicated to self-development and to activities that build your own human stature.
  • Check that the leadership development programs that you provide to leaders in your organization build bigger people, nicer (not more agreeable) people, and teaches them how to bring their own authenticity, humility and caring to their leadership responsibilities.
Leadership is not just about about competence; leadership is also about character. This is why nice guys (as we have defined them) finish first, not last.      

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