At work, 'nice' is on the rise
In a huge shift from the 'me first,' 'greed is good' attitudes of the 1980s, corporations seek a kinder, gentler culture
Patrick Morris could call it "a tale of two companies." As a new college graduate beginning his first job in public relations at a major cosmetics firm in New York, he knew he would be the proverbial low man on the totem pole.Skip to next paragraph
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"You feel you're going to get put upon and crunched and tossed around," he says. But instead of the huge egos and "attitude" he expected, he found himself surrounded by good, caring people. "It made all the difference in the world and helped to shape me into the professional I am today."
By contrast, his next job at a television shopping channel proved to be "an environment full of finger-pointing and backstabbing," he says. "It became a nightmare to go into the office."
In comic strips and movies, tyrannical bosses produce plenty of laughs. Think of Mr. Dithers, Dagwood Bumstead's nemesis in "Blondie," or Miranda in "The Devil Wears Prada." But in real life, managers like these are hardly funny.
Today, in a competitive age that sometimes takes a "nice guys finish last" approach to business, a quiet cultural change appears to be under way. "Nice" and "kind" are becoming operative philosophies in some companies, among them Mr. Morris's first employer. Those adjectives are also showing up in titles of books and organizations. They stand in sharp contrast to the 1980s, when a "greed is good" attitude prevailed in some quarters and business books carried titles such as "Corporate Combat" and "Office Warfare."
"There's a huge shift we've observed," says Russ Edelman, one of the founders of Nice Guy Strategies, a consulting firm in Newburyport, Mass. "Companies are fundamentally saying, 'We need to employ more ethical practices as well as create an environment that supports a nicer mind-set.' Organizations are asking, 'How can we create an environment that is friendly, welcoming, and warm, but also ensure that people in the company are held accountable and can achieve success?' There's a balance people are struggling with."
Workplace observers attribute some of the changes to a reaction against corporate scandals at Enron and Tyco. "In the past decade there have been a lot of egomaniacal bosses," says Tim Hiltabiddle, one of Mr. Edelman's business partners. Sept. 11 also heightened the yearning for a kinder workplace, he says.
Yet that approach is "not about everything being nicey-nice," Mr. Hiltabiddle emphasizes. Nor does it mean being wimpy and naive, lacking backbone, or serving as a doormat. Being too nice, in fact, carries its own perils. "People might take advantage of your good nature," he says.
As one way of framing the issue, Hiltabiddle and Edelman sat down in a restaurant and drew up a Nice Guys Bill of Rights on napkins. Those rights include speaking up, setting boundaries, taking risks, valuing your time, and being accountable.
Studies show that niceness can also produce bottom-line rewards, such as increasing productivity and reducing turnover, says Robin Koval, an advertising executive in New York and coauthor, with Linda Kaplan Thaler, of "The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World With Kindness" (Doubleday). Being nice, she adds, can mean "having the courage and creativity to stand up for what you want, but doing it in a way that is not ugly or threatening."
Women, Ms. Koval finds, are typically taught the importance of being nice. That can produce stereotypes. Noting the popularity of the book, "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office," she says, "We take issue with that. We think we're nice girls, and we have corner offices."
For men, nice is a more liberating idea, Koval adds. "They're the ones who have been socialized to think, 'I've got to be a tough guy, never show my emotions, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there.' "