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.

"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.' "

But "dog eat dog" isn't the only modus operandi. "To be successful in business, you need to have a certain threshold of knowledge of your industry and techniques," says Peter Handal, CEO of Dale Carnegie Training in New York. "But it's not enough just to be good at what you do. In my experience, the people who reach the top are nice. They're people-friendly. They're ones who can communicate with people around them, up and down."

They're also the ones who avoid what Duane Boyce, author of "The Anatomy of Peace," calls "false niceness." He explains the term this way: "If I'm not focused on results, I'm just expecting my friendliness, my politeness to get me by. That's not nice."

In the political arena, this is shaping up to be another season filled with harsh campaign ads as candidates trade jibes and paint negative images of their opponents.

"It's so disheartening that election after election becomes about tearing down the other person," Hiltabiddle says. "It's not constructive in building something; it's tearing down."

Yet politics creates unique challenges. Assuming the role of a politician, Mr. Handal says, "The way I get ahead is either I sell people on me, or I knock you. There's only a binary choice. In business or nonprofits, there are lots of choices.

"Who moves up in organizations? People who are liked."

Customer service is another field filled with negative images. "People are tired of the indifference that we're receiving from so many companies these days in the name of customer service," says Ed Horrell, author of "The Kindness Revolution: The Company-wide Culture Shift That Inspires Phenomenal Customer Service." He notes that consumers want service "peppered with some respect and dignity and kindness."

Mr. Horrell praises companies known for excellent service, such as Nordstrom, FedEx, L.L. Bean, and Chick-fil-A. Their emphasis on core values – dignity, respect, courtesy, kindness – begins at the top and requires commitment from the CEO and managers all the way down to front-line workers. "The way they treat their employees is virtually always the way they'll treat their customers."

For Morris, the publicist who tells the tale of two very different companies, the positive examples set by his bosses and co-workers at the cosmetics firm continue to influence his work as public relations director of his firm in Troy, N.Y.

"If you want people to perform, and you want people to do a good job, you have to treat them nicely," he says. "It's not to say you don't lose your cool sometimes. But if somebody makes a mistake, what's not going to help them is to have an intensely negative reaction to it. What's going to help is to say, 'How do you think this happened? What do you think we should do to fix it? What steps should we take next time that this doesn't become a problem?' That's the way I was taught."

That kind of approach can pay big dividends. Pamela Gregg of the University of Dayton Research Institute in Ohio praises her bosses for "going out of their way to be nice to those around them." In addition to being fair and expressing appreciation for jobs well done, she says, they give employees "free rein to take risks and make what we can of our jobs."

Everyone works hard, Ms. Gregg says, so her bosses often lighten the mood with levity. One employee will soon celebrate 45 years with the institute. For others, 20, 30, and 40 years of service are not uncommon. Last year the Dayton Business Journal rated it one of the Top 10 winners in its "Best Places to Work in the Miami Valley" contest.

In an era of corporate downsizing, even cutbacks offer an opportunity for companies to soften their approach. "The act of laying someone off does not mean you're unkind," Horrell says. "A kind person does not want to do that, but there's a kind way to do it."

Making a case that "nice is very powerful," Koval says, "We all have to network with each other. We all work in teams. Unless you're a chemist in a lab bent over a test tube, nobody works alone. The old command-and-control way of doing business is clearly over." She adds, "Meanness is so last millennium. Niceness is the future."

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