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Is Nice Necessary?

No Asshole RuleAl Capone once said, “You get further with a kind word and a gun than you do with a kind word alone,” and as we come out of the recession, I often wonder whether the workplace will emerge with a more Capone-esqe, dog-eat-dog approach to doing business (although without the gun!) or whether it will be a more collaborative world where nice is necessary.

I’ve never been a great fan of business books but while browsing for vacation reading at JFK recently, I stumbled on “The No Asshole Rule.” The book, by Robert Sutton, discusses building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t.

Luckily, I’ve had limited exposure to the type of people described by Sutton, but I know I am in the minority. Incivility in the workplace is rampant – a study referenced in the book said that 10% of people experience it on a daily basis and 20% were direct targets of incivility once a week.

Sutton goes on to say that “assholes” don’t just damage the immediate targets of their abuse they affect other employees who witness the treatment. Ironically, these workplace jerks often suffer from their own actions as they can’t motivate their teams to perform for them.

An “asshole” may be good at many things but if people don’t want to work for them or their actions de-motivate their teams then how can they possibly be successful long term? If their behavior causes increased turnover or a decreased commitment to work by other employees, then the cost to the overall business can be significant both in terms of company morale and dollars. As any good manager knows, a happy workforce is a more productive workforce.

Don’t get me wrong, we all have bad days, and are inclined to project it on friends, family or co-workers – nothing is ever going to change there! As you read this, you can probably point to times when you have been less than kind – I certainly can – but the question is, did it get you any further than if you had handled it in a nicer way? For me, the answer is no and there is certainly a bank teller or two that would vouch for that!

On the other hand, we also can’t hide behind not wanting to be seen as an “asshole” as an excuse for not addressing issues. As a British executive said to me recently, you can be confrontational and direct but with manners. It’s a fine line, but a business will never be successful allowing office bullies to flourish. Nor will it be successful by banishing confrontational behavior all together. It has to be a nice balance of both.

I truly believe that nice is vitally necessary in the workplace. This recession has been challenging for everyone from Wall Street to Main Street, but as business improves and we emerge from the toughest few years in decades, we have to ask ourselves how we made it through. It wasn’t because hundreds of lone “assholes” paved the way for us; it was through teamwork, collaboration and pure hard work. Let’s remember that as the good times return! CJP

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