Richard Reeves

The capacity to show consideration is being seen increasingly as a worktime asset

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Nobody wants to be dubbed 'nice'. If your new boyfriend or girlfriend describes you as a nice person, the chances are you'll be crestfallen. Sexy, dangerous, fun, enigmatic, funny, passionate, yes – but please never, ever nice.

The word hasn't lost some of the sense found in its ancient root in the Latin nescius – which means ignorant. The only excuse for being nice is being clueless. Studies of how people judge film and book reviewers show that the more relentlessly negative they are, the more intelligent they are judged to be by readers. (Actually, the same is probably true of magazine columnists: the pressure and temptation to eviscerate is strong.)

Niceness is certainly not a characteristic generally lauded in the business world. Leaders become famous for their toughness, not their tenderness: think 'Neutron' Jack Welch, or 'Chainsaw' Al Dunlap. Somehow 'Sweetie' just doesn't do it as a prefix.

This is not a new judgment about the characteristics of successful corporate operators. Back in 1938, in an essay about power, the philosopher Bertrand Russell described an executive as 'a man of rapid decisions, quick insight into character, and iron will; he must have a firm jaw, tightly closed lips, and a habit of brief and incisive speech'. Nothing about bringing coffee and donuts to his PA.

But although no-one seeks the label of niceness, it is probably as valuable an asset as any other. The rising importance of EQ, or emotional intelligence, signals simply that in order to manage people today, understanding their motivation and needs is key. Nice people do this instinctively. And in the long run, empathy might be as important to business success as firm-jawed decisiveness.

During the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Michael Portillo noted that the 'nice' MPs were supporting David Cameron. Cameron himself was widely perceived to be nice, while David Davis was seen as nasty. Portillo's view was that niceness counted for a lot more in politics than was generally admitted. This may be a growing trend – if voters are selecting leaders less on the grounds of their specific policies and more on the basis of the kind of person they appear to be, niceness becomes a more important plus. Of course, you can try to fake it, but daytime TV sofas have a curious power to unmask.

Indeed, while the media, business and political elite tend to admire cleverness, toughness and combativeness, the general population are drawn to the nicer end of the spectrum. Jeremy Paxman is the hero of the clever-nasty class; Richard and Judy are the priest and priestess of niceness. If you sit – as I was honoured to – on their sofas, the realisation comes quickly that their appeal is not in the depth and reach of their questioning, the slickness of their TV manner or the possibility of creating embarrassment in their guests (well, not intentionally, anyway). It is that they are actually nice people, who assume their guests are also nice people, with worthy goals and interesting lives. They may or not be right, but a huge part of their appeal is the absence of malice.

There is some evidence that good-looking people are more likely to be hired, either as full-time employees or as consultants. This should not be surprising: most of us would rather be around attractive people if possible. But if a similar study were to be conducted on the perceived niceness of the applicant, I think the effect would be even higher. Nobody wants to work with or for a miserable, selfish person, no matter what their technical qualifications for the job. Even in business leaders, who we expect to make tough decisions, there may be a growing premium attached to being nice as well.

Of course, there are 'nice' and 'nasty' jobs and employers too. And most people would rather do a job that makes them feel good about themselves – and that signals their niceness to the outside world. A study by American economist Robert Frank looked at differences in wage expectations between similar jobs in dissimilar organisations. He found that nine out of 10 people would rather earn $30,000 a year as an ad copywriter for the American Cancer Society than $45,000 doing the same job for Camel cigarettes. There was a $10,000 wage gap between being a lawyer for the National Rifle Association and for the Sierra Club (an environmental pressure group). Given the choice between being nice or rich, most respondents chose nice.

One of the problems with being nice is that it is time-consuming. Stopping for a chat, ask-ing after a sick relative/cat, sending thank-you notes, remembering birthdays – it all uses up valuable minutes that could be spent restructuring the business or dashing to a pitch meeting in New York.

And, indeed, short-term effectiveness may be greater among those who put niceness last. But in the long run, winning the support and loyalty of staff and creating networks of well-disposed people requires a measure of kindness. It is high time to take the stigma away from the 'nice' label. It may once have been true that being nice was dumb. Now, though, it is the nasties who are the numbskulls.

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