If you Google “being nice at work,” you’ll find no shortage of articles bemoaning the hidden costs of being kind in your career.
“9 Ways Being Nice At Work Is Holding You Back,” warns one article. “11 Ways To Stop Being Too Nice At Work & Start Being Assertive,” offers another. “It’s Time to Stop Being So Nice at Work,” concludes a third, which pretty much assumes that we’ve all agreed that niceness is high on our list of professional mistakes.
Which isn’t entirely misguided. It is true that being nice isn’t the answer to every situation at work, just as being a dick at all times won’t always get us what we want. Some conversations — like asking for a raise, defending a position, or standing up to a difficult colleague — call for a tougher stance, a thicker skin, a stronger backbone. We need a range of approaches — from gentle to tough — depending on what we’re trying to achieve.
But in the growing movement against niceness, we’ve also lost sight of the power of kindness. A growing body of research confirms just how important this quality is, particularly in professional settings, where conflict and tensions run high. While our culture tends to celebrate difficult, idiosyncratic leaders, a number of studies now show that it’s kind, thoughtful, empathic leaders who actually deliver the most meaningful results for their teams.
That’s what we’ll be talking about in this piece: why it pays to be nice at work, how to capture the benefits of kindness, and how to make kindness an institutional practice at work.
Starting with the fact that…
Kindness develops trust, influence, and rapport.
Contrary to the myth of the overbearing leader who demands loyalty from his troops, a growing body of research shows that kindness is a much more powerful way to cultivate trust and rapport with our colleagues.
Consider, for example, one landmark study on the effect of trustworthiness in decisionmaking. In this experiment, researchers tested the idea that people’s willingness to cooperate with unknown partners depends on how much they implicitly trust them — two variables that really have no objective relationship.
What the researchers concluded tells us a lot about how and when people collaborate with one another at work. The scientists found that participants invested more money in partners who were subjectively rated as more trustworthy. More than that, the relationship between the amount of money offered was stronger for trustworthy faces than it was for untrustworthy faces.
The bottom line? Perceived trustworthiness — largely created through openness and kindness — is a critical social cue that influences how people make decisions.
We can also imagine how that principle extends to all sorts of scenarios at work. Kindness and openness engenders trust, loyalty, confidence, and rapport, and acts as the lifeblood of productive relationships in the workplace.
It’s no surprise, then, that experts like Robin Dreeke, a former head of the Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program and guest on The Art of Charm Podcast, believe that trustworthy people always rise to the top. It’s not the alpha jerks enforcing loyalty who succeed, but the trustworthy partners who earn that loyalty through kindness.
Or, as Amy Cuddy, social psychologist, author, and past AoC guest argues, “Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.”
Kindness improves team performance, morale, and commitment.
Scientists have proven that kindness engenders trust and rapport among individuals. But the research also shows that being nice has a profound effect on teams and companies as a whole.
In a fascinating study on the performance of cross-functional product development teams, scientists found a key relationship between kindness and fairness — or, to be more precise, the perception of fairness “based on the quality of interpersonal treatment received from the project manager during the new product development process.”
The conclusion was quite clear: fairness has a clear and important impact on team members’ performance.
More than that, the researchers found that interpersonal citizenship behavior, individual performance, and team performance were all enhanced when individuals were dedicated to both the team and the project.
Other studies confirm these findings, which tell us just how important kindness, fairness, and trust are to great leadership.
Another group of researchers found that leaders’ interpersonal fairness and self-sacrifice elicits “elevation” — an emotional reaction to moral excellence — and that elevation has an impact on good citizenship at work and emotional commitment to the organization.
In other words, employees who are enlivened by their leaders’ commitment to kindness and fairness behave better and commit more strongly to their teams.
Which confirms what we already know anecdotally. Being nice at work isn’t just a matter of smiling in the hallway and keeping the peace. It’s a quality that builds the emotional bonds that keep people emotionally committed to their work.
Kindness allows us to effectively navigate conflict.
As we discuss a ton here at AoC, conflict is a huge part of our lives, professionally and personally. The best decisions get made through profound disagreement, and yet we seem less and less equipped to successfully handle it.
One unexpected key to resolving conflict is kindness. While we often celebrate the autocratic leader who manages conflict by fighting for his vision (Steve Jobs much?), the research shows that kindness, empathy, and understanding actually lead to better results.
In addition to the body of research we mentioned above, multiple studies confirm the critical role of kindness in conflict resolution — particularly in long-lasting relationships. One landmark study, for example, looked at the patterns that affect the success of marriage in the long run. While the researchers were studying traditional marriage, their findings actually shed light on all kinds of long-term partnerships, at home and at work.
In their study, the researchers found that certain interaction patterns — like disagreement, anger, and other traditional conflicts — might not actually be harmful over the long term, as we often think. In fact, it turns out that disagreement and conflict actually predict improvement in marital satisfaction over time, if they’re handled in a kind and productive way.
The interaction patterns that do deteriorate partnerships over time, say the researchers, are defensiveness (including whining and complaining), stubbornness, and withdrawal from interaction.
If you’ve ever worked at a dysfunctional company, these interaction patterns probably sound quite familiar. Leaders blame their subordinates, which makes employees self-defend (and then complain to one another privately in the break room or the bar after work). Team members become stubborn about their opinions, and then withdraw from meaningful conflict in order to keep the peace or avoid the unpleasantness. Suddenly, no one’s having the difficult conversations necessary for good decisions, and the dysfunction only compounds.
Just like marriage, our professional lives are fraught with these deleterious patterns. The antidote, of course, is not avoiding conflict, but navigating it with a commitment to kindness, warmth, and openness — yet another way that it really does pay to be nice at work.
Because what these researchers found is that it’s not the conflicts themselves that damage our relationships at work, but the way in which we navigate them.
If we respond to challenges with defensiveness, stubbornness, and withdrawal, then our bonds with one another fall apart.
But if we respond to them with kindness, openness, and collaboration, then we can successfully navigate those conflicts, and actually use them to deepen our bonds over time.
Nice people lower their stress and increase their earning potential.
Kindness has a number of benefits, but one of the most tangible (and perhaps counterintuitive) is the ability to earn more money.
Despite the persistent myth of “nice guys finish last,” the research shows that niceness actually leads to better performance — including financial compensation.
In one study, Professor Jonathan Freeman, founder of i2 Media, concluded that “nice people said they were generally happier, healthier, and better off financially.” Specifically, he found that nice people earned an average of £3,500 a year more — a concrete marker that kindness really does pay off.
But the most interesting finding is how kindness led to higher earnings. Freeman’s psychological questionnaire assessed niceness based on a constellation of qualities — empathy, agreeableness and altruism — which help make up our emotional intelligence. Nice people, according to Freeman, have higher emotional quotients, which in turn make them better equipped to navigate their professional lives.
In other words, how well we understand other people, how well we get along with them, and how much we commit to helping them give us the emotional aptitude to perform in a way that leads, among other things, to higher compensation.
But the benefits of kindness go beyond a paycheck.
Freeman and his team also found that people with higher levels of emotional intelligence were able to endure stress better than others.
In another experiment, participants completed a test that measured their “micro-expressions” as they watched a short video showing stressful or difficult situations, such as missing a train or road rage. According to the study, those with higher EQs managed their responses to these stressful stimuli better than those with lower EQs.
Kindness doesn’t just make us easier to get along with — it also increases our physiological and financial health.
Being nice boosts health and longevity.
Echoing Freeman’s study, a huge body of research confirms that niceness has a profound impact on health and wellness.
Consider this fascinating study on the connection between social bonds and brain activity. Researchers in the study found that when we expect that our social relationships with other people are safe — when we feel that our emotional bonds with other people are secure over time — our amygdalas (which are largely responsible for emotional reactions) don’t activate in a threat-related way.
In other words, social bonds based on safeness, trust, and kindness serve to protect us by literally protecting our brains.
We can imagine how work environments based on the opposite values — which still run far too many companies these days — can have profoundly negative neural effects.
Similarly, another team of researchers found that a lack of bonding among people adds to psychological distress. Because workplace distress is linked to people’s sense of contribution, the study recommended that workplaces find ways to consider employees’ sense of contribution to society as a whole as a way of improving mental health.
And the benefits of kindness echo across our entire lives, including how long we get to live.
One prominent study confirmed that people who have a good peer support system at work may live longer than people who don’t have such a support system.
What’s more, this effect of peer support was most pronounced among those between the ages of 38 and 43 — when many of us are making our most important professional decisions.
Even more interesting is that a similar level of support from supervisors (as opposed to peers) had no effect on mortality — which tells us that kindness and support might be more important when it comes from our equals.
All of which reflects research we’ve been sharing here at AoC for years, including a recent Harvard study showing that the simple act of making friends can overcome social status, IQ, and genetics.
The bottom line? Be kind at work. Build relationships with peers. And nurture safe, collaborative relationships based on trust and consistency. Doing so could literally add years to your life.
Being kind at work makes you happier at home.
We often think about our professional and personal lives as different realms, but the way we behave at work has a profound effect on how we feel at home.
Researchers confirm the link. In one interesting study, researchers found that targets of incivility at work don’t leave the stress of unkindness at the office. Instead, they “bring it home to the family domain,” where workplace unhappiness “influences relationships with and outcomes of their partners.”
We all know this is true anecdotally, but the data bears it out. Being kind at work makes us (and our colleagues) kinder at home, which in turn makes them kinder at work. The more these two worlds bleed together — thanks to smartphones, social workplaces, and longer hours — the more the two domains bear on each other.
Suffering at home? Try being kinder at work. And try advocating for a culture of kindness at your office. The more companies and teams institutionalize that kindness, the happier their employees will become overall, which creates a much-needed virtuous cycle.
Being kind leads to higher social status.
The more scientists dig into the mechanics of kindness in social settings, the more they dispel the old myth of the alpha dog who dominates through anger, punishment, and self-interest.
In fact, three experimental studies looked at the relationship between altruistic behavior and the formation of status hierarchies within groups. They studied the connection by confronting participants with a social dilemma in which they could either benefit themselves or benefit their group. All three studies revealed something fascinating on the true nature of social status within communities.
The first study revealed that in a reputation environment when contributions were public, people were more altruistic.
In the second and third studies, the most altruistic members gained the highest status in their group and were most frequently preferred as cooperative interaction partners.
The third study, meanwhile, revealed that as the costs of altruism increase, the status rewards also increase.
What does that all mean?
It means that people might behave altruistically because people who are generous tend to accrue the social benefits. The researchers call this competitive altruism.
More important, what these scientists have shown is that true alpha status is based on kindness and altruism, not on incivility or self-interest.
The latter might have a role to play in certain situations (and could even lead to some short-term success), but lasting social status among humans is fundamentally based on an ethos of empathy — which tells us a lot about how important kindness is to earning lasting influence at work.
If you look at some recent controversies in the business world — the PR and management crises at Uber, for example — you can see what happens when companies ignore this principle. True and secure dominance, perhaps counterintuitively, only comes when we prioritize altruism.
How can we actually foster niceness?
So the benefits of kindness are clear and wide-ranging. But how do we actually cultivate and institutionalize niceness at work? That is an article in and of itself, but here are three concrete ways to increase our commitment to being kind, collaborative and empathic in our professional lives.
Consciously cultivate empathy.
Empathy — one of the pillars of emotional connection and rapport — is a characteristic shared by the greatest leaders. But like all skills, empathy is something we can work on the more we consciously practice it.
It begins with listening. If we actively and consciously listen, we automatically build deeper, more meaningful relationships. And if we listen with an ear to other people’s emotional experiences, we can cultivate the kindness that delivers the benefits we’ve been talking about in this piece.
The way in which we empathize also matters. One interesting technique Tony Schwartz advocates for in the Harvard Business Review, for example, is subtly shifting our language. Instead of just asking our colleagues “how are you?” he recommends asking a more authentic and specific question: “How are you feeling?” That invites the other person to actually consider the question, break out of social etiquette, and respond more honestly.
Commit to authentic kindness.
At this point, most people understand that kindness, understanding, and empathy are virtues to strive for at work. But it’s not enough to embrace the idea of niceness. We have to actually be nice.
As Meghan O’Gieblyn recently reminded us in the New Yorker, there’s a difference between niceness and kindness. “Niceness,” she explains, referencing another author’s work, “is a virtue of ‘surfaces rather than depths.'” Kindness, on the other hand, “requires active engagement. Compassion involves some measure of vulnerability. But niceness demands so little.”
The studies we’ve referred to in this article investigated the sort of kindness, empathy, and rapport that goes far deeper than a smile in the hallway, small talk in the break room, or basic etiquette in a meeting. These are easy to perform, but they don’t alone build great teams or deliver extraordinary results.
But truly caring about the people we work with, taking the time to understand them and help them, and staying connected to them as individuals even when conflict arises — that’s the stuff of true connection.
And as we often talk about, authenticity doesn’t come from adding techniques to our idea of niceness, but from removing all of the inauthentic trappings we associate with it, until we’re left with a real and immediate desire to connect with the people around us.
Discuss kindness openly and honestly.
Finally, we have to commit to kindness in our relationships and our workplaces. Once we see how powerful true kindness is, this becomes easier and easier to do. But we have to embody it, model it, and institutionalize it.
In many cases, that means calling kindness out when it’s missing. When an employee snaps and becomes difficult, we might take a moment and ask them to navigate that conflict with patience and understanding. When a team meeting gets heated, we might call out the tension, recognize where the disagreement is coming from, and mediate the conversation firmly but gently. That way, we can work on kindness right in the moment, when it’s needed most.
We can also explicitly discuss kindness with our partners, superiors and employees. We can talk about ways to create a culture of kindness at work, create training programs focused on empathic conflict resolution, and include kindness and collaboration in annual performance reviews. Sometimes we need that kind of deliberate conversation to make kindness a priority.
Together, these practices and mindsets can promote the niceness we need now more than ever. And if we can embody it at home and at work, we’ll see the benefits ripple across our lives — from our relationships to our longevity, our social capital to our happiness.
[Featured image of Mr. Fred Rogers sourced from Wikimedia Commons]