Nice has no place in business

Merlin Mann is fond of saying “you don’t have to be nice, but you should be kind.” In this statement “nice” refers to being agreeable, and “kind” to being friendly. These are not the same.

Men who prey on women depend on a woman’s social conditioning to be nice, to be agreeable, AND to be kind, to be friendly, and in doing so put their target’s desire for self-protection in conflict with their desire, often unconscious, to satisfy that conditioning. This is an extreme example but it illustrates the problem well; nice all-too-often becomes self-negation.

There’s plenty of opportunity for self-negation in a business context; a classic example is making a request of a peer, and when that request is not fulfilled, not following up out of fear that you will be disliked.

In business, we are interdependent. We need things of others: of our superiors, of our subordinates, and of our peers. Without role power in play it is especially easy for our conditioning to be “nice” to trip up our interoperation with our peers. Not following up on an unmet expectation trains your peers that your requests don’t matter. In effect you train others to ignore your needs if you do not consistently assert them. That’s no way to be effective in your role. What’s worse, it doesn’t help your likability one whit.

So, start with a well-formed request: this is what I need, this is when I need it, this is why I need it. Thank the person for meeting that request. Follow up right away if it is unmet and negotiate a new deadline. Give the person context. Escalate as needed.

(You can skimp on the well-formed-ness of your requests once you’ve established trust that your wishes will regularly be met by this peer, in a timely manner, and that they will raise objections quickly and in good faith. Not before.)

Your kindness appears in these interactions when you do not interpret your peer’s noncompliance as a personal attack. Your kindness is visible when every interaction, though your need has not been met, is pleasant and factual. Your kindness is made clear when you first escalate to your peer, then only if necessary escalate to a superior. Your kindness is exemplified when that escalation focuses on the unmet need first, and not the peer or your disappointment.

You don’t have to be nice, but you should be kind. This means taking a charitable view of your peer’s motivations and behavior, but nonetheless standing up for what you need, when, and why, and not letting things slide. You deserve to be effective in your job. And if you are kind, you are likely to be well-liked. Nice is not necessary.