The Hazards of Being Too Nice at Work

If you're a nice person, you probably think that being nice works to your advantage in the office. After all, how could it be any other way? Genuinely nice people are well liked. They're generally easy to work with. They care about others and tend to have good values. In a fair and just world, that sort of behavior should be rewarded. Right?

Not necessarily. Too often, nice, competent people get passed up for promotions. Instead, the plum job goes to the prima donna or the person who plays politics. The bonus is bestowed upon the squeaky wheel or the obnoxious go-getter. In this environment, the nice guy really does finish last. It's frustrating because it goes against everything we were taught as a children about the Golden Rule.

What nice people may not realize is that they're too nice, and that being too nice can seriously stymie their career growth and success, says Russ Edelman, a SharePoint consultant and co-author of the book, Nice Guys Can Get the Corner Office: Eight Strategies for Winning in Business Without Being a Jerk (Portfolio, 2008.) "The people in business who suffer from nice guy syndrome are not achieving their true potential," he says.

The problem with being too nice, according to Edelman-who comes off as a very nice guy-is that you're a doormat and people take advantage of you. Nice people are too concerned about pleasing others and not making waves that they don't stand up for themselves.

Edelman cites a nice man he interviewed for his book, who was vying for an executive position. The nice man was well-respected and well-liked in his company, and had a very good shot at the job. Of course, someone else was competing for the position. When the nice man was asked in an interview about his competitor, according to Edelman the nice guy said he thought his competitor would do a fantastic job. The nice contender wound up writing a letter of recommendation for his competitor because he didn't want to cause a stir by vying for the executive-level job, says Edelman. End result: The competitor got the job, and the nice guy remained in his spot on the corporate ladder.

"The nice guy is forever putting the oxygen mask on someone else before putting it on himself," says Edelman.

The Cost of Nice in Business

Being too nice is not just a problem for individuals. It's a problem for businesses, too. Employees who are too nice cost businesses time and money.

In a survey of 50 CEOs, Edelman asked about the impact of "being too nice" on their businesses. The CEOs responded by saying that being too nice cost them eight percent of their gross revenues. In other words, if the CEOs' companies had been more aggressive, they believed they could have earned more money.

Edelman notes that managers who are too nice are reluctant to make decisions on their own. They fear hurting the feelings of anyone whom they don't ask for feedback, so they include everyone in their decision-making. That wastes time and can lead to missed opportunities.

"The overly nice guy usually defers to others. They're reluctant to create losers," says Edelman. The irony is that in the process of trying to make everyone a winner, the nice guy ends up the loser.

Managers who are too nice also avoid confrontation, says Edelman. They'd rather ignore problems than address them head on. Of course, ignoring problems only makes them worse, and burying one's head in the sand does not inspire the confidence of the manager's team or of his superiors, adds Edelman. It only inspires their ire.

"If you appease everyone, if you fear hurting people's feelings, you do a disserve to whatever project you're working on, to yourself and your business," says Edelman. "That's where being too nice is not nice at all."

Advice for People Who Are Too Nice

Softies need to toughen up, says Edelman. "I'm not advocating that people become jerks or SOBs," he says, "But they need to find a balance to stay true to their nice nature while also being appropriately assertive and protecting their interests."

The challenge, then, for nice people is to redefine what it means to be nice, says Edelman, and to understand that being nice doesn't have to mean being a doormat. You can be nice and be assertive and deal with confrontation and set boundaries, he adds.

Here are three concepts nice people need to understand to succeed at work:

1. Business is competitive. Deal with it. Edelman interviewed Sam DiPiazza Jr., the CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers, for his book. DiPiazza had this to say about business, according to Edelman: "Business, whether we like it or not, includes competition. It's challenging, aggressive and very demanding. Despite the perception of many, it can also be performed nicely."

2. Sometimes being nice isn't very nice at all. Edelman also spoke with the CEO of the American Cancer Society, John Seffrin, who believes that when mangers are too nice and are incapable of having honest discussions with others (such as during a performance review) for fear of hurting feelings, they're in fact not being nice at all and they're doing a disservice to the people they manage.

3. Confrontation is not necessarily a bad thing. Nice people avoid confrontation because it's uncomfortable, says Edelman. If nice people are to be more assertive, they need to understand the business value of confrontation: it allows them to solve problems. Edelman points to a strategy employed by 1-800-GOT-JUNK CEO Brian Scudamore, which Scudamore calls "race to the conflict." The idea is, if a conflict or issue comes up, employees should race to it to get it resolved as quickly as possible. If they don't, they're wasting time.

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