The Rise of Nice

Learn about the shift from tough-love management techniques to something decidedly more Type B.

By
Mathew Schwartz | October 2007


Is "nice" the new strategy for IT management success? While "tough
love" has its place in the corporate pantheon, don’t discount the
impact of being nice, whether in the executive suite or the
tech-support call center.

Make no mistake: "Nice" doesn’t
mean bland. "Nice is one of those words that has an image problem, it’s
kind of gotten a bad rap, because it gets used in a very careless way,"
says Robin Koval, president of advertising firm Kaplan Thaler Group and
co-author of The Power of Nice: How To Conquer the Business World With Kindness.
"People will say, ‘Oh yes, he’s nice,’ which is shorthand for ‘I don’t
have an opinion,’ or ‘I don’t have anything nice to say.’"

Truly
effective managers know that beyond offering a karma boost, being nice
is expedient. "If you’re nasty and aggressive you might get your way
the first time, but you probably won’t after that," says Koval. "It’s
part of the DNA."

Nice on the Rise

The
ascendancy of a "nicer" work culture may stem from recent
command-and-control fiascos."During this decade, there have been some
high-profile failures to the old-school autocratic style, be they
political – the Bush Administration and its failures in Iraq – or
ethical – the downfall of Enron, Tyco," notes Tim Hiltabiddle, of
consulting company Nice Guy Strategies in Newburyport, Mass.
"Meanwhile, there are numerous ways in which we are becoming ‘nicer’ in
the post-9/11 world."

The way we work today – matrixed
organizations, distributed teams, mobile workers, telecommuting,
knowledge sharing, and widespread collaboration – also reinforces the
need to be nice. "You have to be a pretty creative person, and nice, to
get people to continuously want to work for you, do things with you,
and to put your agenda in front of someone else’s," says Koval.

Furthermore,
in our increasingly connected society we can be immediately accountable
for any bad behavior, whether at work or on the town. Witness the
creation of Web sites for blacklisting ill-behaved Match.com dates, or
that online hall of business shame known as the "Bad Boss Contest."

Courting IT Talent

The
realities of a tight job market especially require IT managers to play
nice. According to a study by Robert Half Technology, 16 percent of
companies anticipated hiring more IT professionals in the first quarter
of 2007, and only 2 percent expected to reduce headcount – the largest
net increase in hiring since the end of 2001.

"What does
this hot job market mean for IT?" asks Samuel Bright in a recent
Forrester Research report. "It’s a seller’s market," and to hire top
talent, CIOs must realize that "the candidate’s decision-making process
takes into account culture, brand, advancement opportunity, technology
profile, and business involvement, as well as compensation."

In other words, niceness matters. "Employees just aren’t interested in being bullied," says Hiltabiddle.

At
the same time, effective managers need to balance niceness with being a
"tough guy," he says. "If you’re too nice, you might become a passive,
risk-adverse pushover with poor boundaries. But if you’re too much the
SOB, you’ll likely lack the kindness, compassion, empathy, and
emotional intelligence needed to be effective in today’s world."

The Payoff

Beyond
fostering better manager-employee interactions, being nice is
especially important in support environments, both for IT personnel and
their customers.

As an example, Koval cites a recent
customer service experience. "We’ve been having terrible BlackBerry
problems throughout our network, and I have to tell you the gentleman
(in IT) I spoke to in Chicago the other day was the best part of my
day." While he couldn’t immediately solve her connectivity problem – IT
was adding extra servers, and a complete fix was several days away –
"he took 20 minutes to explain to me the problem in a non-technical way
that even I could understand, and it made all the difference."

Furthermore,
though she’d never spoken with him before, "I still remember his name
-Trevor – and the next time I see his boss, who I do know, I’m going to
mention this."

The lesson, Koval says, is that even when
being nice takes more effort, it can pay off. "Business schools drum it
out of us that nice guys can get ahead, we watch The Devil Wears Prada,
we get all these messages that suggest nice isn’t a success story," she
observes. "But the truth is, people who are nice do succeed more than
people who aren’t."

Perhaps they just aren’t as loud.

Mathew Schwartz is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Pennsylvania.

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