A Case For Being a ‘Nice’ Boss

My uncle, now deceased, used to have a little wooden plaque hanging on the wall of his den.  It read, “It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice”

I was reminded of this the other day when I caught myself being not nice to a young man who was conducting telephone surveys for an insurance company.  Specifically, I allowed my disdain for unsolicited telephone surveys to affect the way I spoke to him.  That wasn’t fair.  And it definitely wasn’t nice.  So I apologized and then did my best to separate my dislike for the survey from my empathy for someone doing an honest and thankless job.

It occurred to me then that nice, at least in corporate settings, is often the victim of our contempt and in fact frequently equated with weakness.  The perspective is that people who are nice are pushovers. They lack character. They are spineless, maybe even incompetent.  When we ask people to describe a leader, they invariably say things like, strong, decisive, visionary, and courageous.  Rarely are they characterized as ‘nice’.  Indeed in some organizations we even expect our leaders to bring with them a measure of unpleasantness.  It goes with the territory.  After all, they are busy people. ‘Nice’ doesn’t get the job done.

But to me, it gets a bad rap.  In fact I think it has an important role to play in organizational success.  I think too, that it could use some repositioning in terms of the way we think about it.

So let’s try it.

What if we decided to equate ‘nice’ with strength instead of weakness?  What would it look like?  Well, here’s what I’m thinking about that:

When “nice” = “strength”…

It would look like Kindness  ~ We’ve all heard it.  “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” It’s an old American proverb with an enduring ring of truth.  And really, it takes just as much time to be mean as it does to be kind.

It would look like Truthfulness ~ Here’s where ‘nice’ grows teeth. Sometimes engaging in difficult conversations and telling people what they need to hear to make better choices is much nicer than avoiding or misleading them.  Often, taking the easy way out is very far from being nice.

It would look like Respect  ~ To me, respect asks us to behave like adults and treat others like adults too.  There is no room for condescension or patronizing behaviour in my definition.  It’s simply not nice.

It would look like Generosity ~ Generosity is often about letting go of something we’d rather keep for ourselves.  It is a demonstration of regard and a vote of confidence.  It takes strength.  And, it’s a nice habit to adopt because generosity can be catching.

It would look like Clarity ~ Being clear about what we need and what we expect is part of the package, especially if we intend to use those expectations as a benchmark for performance appraisal at some point.  Otherwise, it’s not fair and especially not nice.

It would look like Empathy ~ Seeking to understand how things are for others is a primary role of the leader.  It’s the way s/he “tunes in” to the work environment and engages people, not only in conversation but also in playing a willing part in fulfilling the organizational purpose.

It would look like Civility ~ Good manners are certainly part of being nice.  We may think we don’t have time for this. We are too busy.  I assert, however, that for workplaces to be ‘livable’ they must include courteousness.  People work better together when they treat each other well.  It’s as simple as that.

The truth about being “nice” is, it really doesn’t matter what you call it.  It’s not about the word.  It’s about the behaviour that the word suggests.  If we choose to look at being nice as a weakness, we will continue to discount its value in the workplace.  We will cling to the notion that “nice ‘guys’ finish last” and  keep on accepting objectionable behaviour from leaders who believe it.

So let’s remember those words from the American Playwright, Wilson Mizner, ~ “Be nice to the people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down”

What do you think?



Filed under building awareness, Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values, Organizational Effectiveness, Servant Leadership

19 responses to “A Case For Being a ‘Nice’ Boss

  1. Hi Gwyn,

    Your post reminds me how important it is to define our terms. “Nice” can mean a lot of things – some attractive and others that aren’t.

    Too often teams and organizations list their values, but don’t define them, and then wonder why people aren’t living the values – well, a lot of time, they believe they are living the values – they’re just using their own definition, not yours.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jesse ~ I think you’ve brought out the most important message in this post. We throw a lot of words at our values but tend not to take the time to agree on what they mean. Brilliant. Thank you 🙂

  2. Hi Gwyn,

    This reminds me of a conversation we recently had in the workplace about conflict… We have a saying “It is ok to have conflict around ideas; not around people” If there is no conflict – than things are not getting done…

    But We feel strongly that respect for people is not negotiable in our workplace… If this makes us soft – than so be it… We have a pretty strong culture and it is not for everyone – and being “nice” is a part of it…


  3. Hi Gwyn
    Your post made feel so guilty – how often have I been not nice to telephone help desk people and others like your survey man. Even apologizing and explaining it isn’t personal doesn’t quite cover the separation you suggest. It is sad that so many of our admired leaders (Steve Jobs comes to mind) don’t seem to have cultivated “niceness”. In the days when I led project teams we started with a team charter that included alongside honesty commitment etc, the requirement for courtesy and respect. It had taken me quite awhile to work out that even elite teams, notorious for the grit that can accompany high creativity, were more successful if those values were included. Not sure if covers niceness but it gets us closer 🙂

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Wendy ~ I think we can all be found guilty at one time or another of talking to someone in a less than thoughtful way. Perhaps noticing it in ourselves is the first step toward lessening the number of times it happens.
      thanks for sharing your experience here. It’s interesting to note that those teams that developed a charter to include the components of ‘niceness’ were more successful…interesting and encouraging. Thank you for that!

  4. Did you see Barbara Moses’ article in the business section of this past weekend’s Globe and Mail, “Why we need contrarians, and their views”, in which she talks about the (in)famously not nice boss, Steve Jobs?

    I think you’re absolutely right when you suggest that “nice” is sometimes seen as being synonymous with “weak”. I like your definition better. Jerks both real and fictional have been glorified in our culture, but I don’t believe you have to be nasty to be a successful leader. (Strong, yes. Mean, no.)

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Leslie ~ Well said. While I didn’t read Barbara Moses’ article, I have read various pieces that reveal Steve Jobs as being ‘not nice’. And, I think that contrarians can be successfully contrary, fulfill a value purpose in being so, and STILL be nice. Thanks for your input. It’s always nice to see you here.

  5. P.S. I am NEVER not nice to people in customer service jobs (unless they provoke it by being not nice first!), knowing all too well what it’s like to be the person in that position. 🙂

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Leslie ~ To redeem myself, I’d like to add that by the end of the call, I had managed to make the young man laugh. That’s always a good sign that I had been forgiven my earlier short tempered responses. Either that, or he simply thought me a crazy old lady 🙂

  6. Great post, Gwyn. I concur with Jesse that often the root cause is that we leave it up to our assumptions we believe others think being ‘nice’ means instead of defining it in clear terms, both through our words and our actions.

    Besides, if we are to accept the notion that leadership is about putting the others before yourself, then that obliges us to be mindful of how we conduct our interactions with others to ensure they are treated with respect and civility, even when we disagree.

    Of course, as you know from my website, I have no aversion to the word “nice”. 🙂

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Tanveer ~ Good points… and when it comes right down to it, its really more about our actions than the words we use to describe them. Still, certain words can paint some pretty strong images when it comes to leadership and the word “nice” seems to be one of those words. I agree with both you and Jesse that it is important to clarify meaning behind the words we use but also think we need to work toward dispelling the negative images and behaviours that some words convey because, to me, doing so opens up a world of possibilities for a variety of people to be seen as leaders.
      Thanks for your input. It’s very nice of you to take the time to give it 🙂

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  9. Gwynn,

    Thank you for the confirmation of the spirit of being nice. I’ve been living this example throughout my workplace to re-define what strong leadership should look like. My company’s environment implies that strength is in decisiveness, being brash and abrasive. I’ve found that the best leaders are genuinely nice, caring people with strong communication skills, coaching and development skills and the desire to enhance the individuals life.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Demetrius ~ Sometimes the notion that ‘nice’ has no place in business can make it tough for those who believe otherwise. But, people, like you, who continue to practice and promote being nice in leadership prove just how strong you can be in the face of such opposition.
      Thank you for your comment and for coming by!

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