Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Nice Guys Finish First?
The articles at the links below all approach the rise of "niceness" in the workplace with a healthy skepticism. Can nice guys (and gals) finish first these days? Are we entering an unprecedented Pay It Forward era in American business? Who knows? If so, the next question to ask is what do the practitioners of "niceness" really expect to get from their efforts.
The Miami Herald looks at the new book The Power of Nice -- How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness, and registers the appropriate incredulity. Being nice can turn you into "the office doormat", allowing you to be exploited right and left. Others may resent your niceness, or suspect it to be the reflection of a superior attitude - as in the sense of noblesse oblige - or a covert attempt to build up a sense of obligation. For many, "niceness" is the hallmark of insincerity. I recently read an article in The New York Times about the dangers of praise. One of the trends it noted was the tendency of children to interpret their teacher's praise of a classmate as a sign that the classmate needed special encouragement for his or her shortcomings - the opposite of deserving praise in their eyes - and would tease that classmate mercilessly. White collar workers are, contrary to the beliefs of many, no more naive than children are, and can sometimes read "niceness" as a slap in the face. Even genuinely nice people can have an "image problem". Your niceness can make you look like a wimp or a pushover. Nonetheless, "niceness" must be good for something. The Herald attributes its current popularity to the escalating risks of behaving badly in the workplace. Your subordinates can diss you on their blogs, for instance. Also, in a cost-conscious era, obnoxious bosses who chase away employees cost the company money in hiring and training replacements. Being nice can not only keep the boat from rocking. It can also provide a kind of social glue that bonds co-workers together.
The Delaware Online article is similarly skeptical, but provides links to other articles about niceness in the workplace from The Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek.
The Slate article attributes the rise of "niceness" to a change in the zeitgeist. Corporate abuses now figure larger in the public imagination than corporate profits, especially since we all now realize that stock ownership really benefits only a fraction of the American people and, besides, the stock market is not quite as booming as it used to be. Corporate moguls may feel they need to be loved (or at least liked) to survive in a culture that has grown to distrust them. "Niceness" may also simply be a strategy for attracting attention. The corporate world has been ridden by no-nonsense hard-asses for so long that they are no longer a novelty. Toughness has become a tiresome cliche, something to snore at when you haven't been rudely awakened long enough to be repulsed by it. "Niceness" is hot, it is trendy, it the new New Thing.
"Kindness in the workplace goes a long way" from Miami Herald
"Nice Guys Finish First: When did Super Bowl coaches and CEOs start being so...decent?" from Slate
"She Said Blog: Is the workplace really getting 'nicer'?" from Delaware Online