The downside of being nice at work

BBC Capital

Maybe nice guys really do finish last.

Is it possible that being too agreeable or too nice in your dealings with customers, colleagues, subordinates or supervisors is more negative than positive?  Could kindness be holding you back in your career, or be stunting your ability to get a better deal? Several LinkedIn Influencers weighed in on the downside of nice this week.

Here’s what some of them had to say:

Greg McKeown, author, strategy consultant to technology companies

McKeown spent a year gathering data “from 1,000 managers about their experiences at over 100 companies including Apple, Cisco, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Novel and Symantec,” he wrote in his post Warning: Your Nice Boss May Be Killing Your Career.

He wanted to understand the conditions under which “people did the very best work of their careers.” He expected to find a plethora of examples of “over managing, controlling, tyrannical managers,” McKeown wrote. And he did find that in about half the examples. But, he wrote, “The other half surprised me: what they described were managers who were nice but weak.”

One example McKeown gave: “I once worked with just such an executive. He spoke with a soft, quiet voice. He never interrupted anyone… Every time the team became [frustrated] and ready to make the change necessary to get to the next level he would stand up and say sweetly, ‘Oh, I just wanted to remind you all of how far we have come.’ And after a few more sentences the spark of aspiration was gone from the room. He unintentionally signalled the status quo was plenty good enough. There was no need to try harder or change how things were going.”

That attitude can make workers complacent. “The cumulative effect on your career can be dramatic,” McKeown wrote.

How can you tell if your manager is so nice that he or she is hurting your career? Among the questions McKeown said professionals should consider: Does your manager avoid the hard conversations? Does your manager leave problems on the team to fester because he or she doesn’t want to cause offence?

Michael Wheeler, professor at Harvard Business School

For many people, the idea of coming to an agreement on a deal is a good thing. But Wheeler sees it differently. “I once did advisory work for a midsized company whose CEO cheerfully told me, ‘In twenty-five years, we’ve never failed to reach agreement with a customer or a vendor’,” Wheeler wrote in his post Are You Being Too Agreeable? He later told the executive that the company’s record was an odd thing to be proud of.

“If you always come to agreement, there are two explanations and neither of them is good,” Wheeler wrote. “Either you’re being overly cautious and only going after sure things, or sometimes you’re saying yes when you’d be better off walking away.”

It sounds simple enough, but it’s a hard principle to honour in the real world. “Companies often unwittingly set up incentives that make it hard for their employees to come home from the bargaining table empty-handed,” Wheeler wrote. If the opposite were true, some deals could turn out better than they do.

So what’s the right approach? Among other things, Wheeler offered: “Negotiators need to know that they have permission to say no… That doesn’t mean they have to be hard-nosed or rigid. Creativity can spell the difference between deadlock and a deal. Likewise, forging a constructive relationship can lead others to accept terms that they might have originally rejected.”