The Business Benefits of Being Nice

If you think being nice looks weak at work, think again. General goodwill can pay off big time.
Ghostwriter: The Open Organization, Red Hat
August 08, 2012 It’s easy to think of the workplace as something like a battleground—a place where only the tough survive. 

But what if the tables were turned? What if, instead of rewarding harsh and ruthless behavior, the most successful people among us were actually, gulp, kind?

It Pays to Be Kind

“I grew up in the Bronx and I’ve heard a lot of four-letter words,” says Linda Kaplan Thaler, chairman of ad agency Publicis Kaplan Thaler and co-author of the book, The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World With Kindness, “and none of them are as powerful as n-i-c-e.”

Case in point: Back in 1999, the insurance company Aflac approached Kaplan Thaler's tiny firm and asked it to pitch an idea for an ad campaign. When she asked how they found out about her, it turned out that she had been twice referred by influential people she had been kind to by taking time to give some free advice over lunch. Kaplan Thaler won the lucrative contract and the Aflac goose has since become a TV sensation.

“Many people don’t recognize that so much business can be generated from positive deeds and actions,” Kaplan Thalersays, whose firm now has 700 employees and accounts worldwide.

The truth is that no one wants to work in a hostile environment. When people enjoy where they work and feel trusted and appreciated for their efforts, they become more engaged and productive in what they’re doing. That, in turn, leads to better results—and better interactions with everyone from co-workers to customers. It’s also easier to recruit new superstars while keeping your existing stars on board through lower turnover. 

“Business is all about building relationships,” says Paul Spiegelman, the co-founder and CEO of The Beryl Companies, a patient experience service and thought leadership organization located in Dallas. Spiegelman's book, Why is Everyone Smiling?, stresses the importance of treating people with kindness and respect. “And the best way to build relationships is to be kind and to show interest in and compassion for the people you work and interact with. Ultimately, that’s how you build trust, which is the single most important factor in business and in life.”

It turns out that our brains are actually hard-wired to respond to kindness and trust, says Judith Glaser, the CEO of executive coaching firm Benchmark Communications and author of Creating WE, delves into how neuroscience helps explain our relationships in the workplace. “When someone is kind and respectful to us," Glaser says, “our brains produce more oxytocin and dopamine, which helps us relax, feel open to others, and be more sharing and cooperative.”

But, when we feel threatened or disrespected, Glaser adds, the opposite effect occurs, what neuroscientists calls an “amygdala hijack,” where our fight-or-flight instinct kicks in—not the best recipe for fostering teamwork and productivity.

 “Negative impressions are like germs,” Kaplan Thaler says. “If you say something nasty, you’ll have a hard time getting back on track. It takes five compliments to negate a single insult.” You also can’t fake kindness, she says, noting that most of us can easily pick out false acts of kindness through body language and facial cues.

4 Ways to Kindness

Everyone can reap the positive effects of kindness in the workplace. Here are four tips from Kaplan Thaler to foster a kinder work environment:

 1. Share the credit. Harry Truman once said "It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." Kaplan Thaler adds that when you share credit, co-workers and customers feel a sense of ownership in an idea.

 2. Don’t talk down to others. Kaplan Thaler says it’s tough to get fired from her company because they invest so heavily in the hiring process. But the quickest way to get the boot is by berating or belittling someone—especially a subordinate, such as an assistant or a messenger. “You can’t have a negative vibe in a company where ideas are currency,” she says. “Every time you shut someone down, you might be shutting down a money-making idea.”

 3. Focus on the positive. Even in worst-case scenarios, Kaplan Thaler says it’s important to find something positive to focus on. “We encourage people to be honest and say what they feel, but to do it using what we call a ‘Yes sandwich,’” she says. “That might mean telling someone no, but in a way that encloses it in a way that is positive and empowering.” For example, if a talented employee is always late with his or her work, start by complimenting their ideas. Then, address the tardiness problem before sending him or her off with another boost by, say, letting them know you believe in them.

 4. Be courteous. “Mark Twain once said he could live for two months on a good compliment,” Kaplan Thaler says. “It doesn't cost anything to give a compliment or say thank you. You can accomplish great things in business with just a positive comment and some humor.”