It’s stupid not to be nice

The appeal to be nice to one another sounds sweet. “Be nice to one another,” is what you say to small children who tussle over a shovel in the sandbox or who rip caps from heads on the playground. However, it really does seem that becoming an adult entails being somewhat less nice.

“Not one single investigation has proved that it is worthwhile being a jerk. But there are countless investigations that have proven the opposite.” BSI CEO Markus Brunold (left) and his predecessor, Christian A. Rusche, at the BSI jubilarian event in Baden Forest.

Nevertheless, to underestimate being nice would be a mistake; rather ignorant, perhaps even rather stupid. The world’s most prestigious universities, including Yale, Stanford and Harvard Business School, have been scientifically investigating “being nice” for years – and in studies conduct-ed not only by professors of psychology, but also, and par-ticularly, by economics professors.

The results of the numerous studies that have been pro- duced are clear: being nice is worth it. Or, to quote Economics Professor Robert R. Sutton as someone who has been engaged with the topic at Stanford for years, and who has gone on to write two popular science bestsellers about it: “Not one single investigation has proved that it is worthwhile being a jerk. But there are countless investigations that have proven the opposite.”

Smart companies know this.

There are not very many smart companies, however. Professor Christine Porath from the University of Georgetown described in a “New York Times” article in 2015 that the number of lawsuits by employees who have suffered under the behavior of office co-workers has been steadily increasing for years. In 1998, a quarter of those surveyed stated that they were treated rudely once a week. This number nearly dou- bled by 2005, and more than half complained about it in 2011.

“One should never make the mistake of confusing friendliness with weakness.”

Robert I. Sutton, Economics Professor and author of “The No Asshole Rule”

Why it is worth being nice

Especially at the workplace, it is worth being nice to one another. The thinking behind this does not have anything to do with morality or notions of politeness, but with a simple calculation: being nice pays off because you will have to deal with one another in the office on a long-term basis, and hence depend on one another. At work, it’s not like queuing up at the airport, where you can jump the queue knowing that you’ll probably never meet those you’ve just cut off so brazenly again, where you can be sure that the rude behavior has no consequences.

Working together in the office for eight hours a day, five days a week, requires a minimum of mutual fairness and pleasant social interactions to make the workday bear-able. Companies should be interested in this, because only when everyone works together can good results be obtained.

Nevertheless: commonplace are those colleagues who spoil the enjoyment of work by constantly speaking badly about others, being mean, stealing ideas or scheming. The fact that this tendency is increasing rather than decreas-ing, does not surprise Professor Sutton. As a respected academic, he has written seven books about his specialist field of management. But when 11 years ago, in a refresh-ing blog post, he explained how annoying and tedious the increasing number of ruffians you have to deal with on the job is, he received so much feedback that he decided to dedicate an entire book to the subject.

“We find that ruffians damage effective team work more than we are willing to tolerate. And that goes, by the way, even if the ruffian is technically brilliant.”

Rees Hastings, Netflix CEO

The financial consequences of not being nice

It is called, rather non-academically, “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.” Among other things, Sutton’s book illustrates the immense financial consequences that jerks cause. He calculates the total sum in the USA alone to be 24 billion dollars annually; this inconceivably large sum is comprised of the costs of absences among those who become psychologically and physically ill due to bullying, the resulting health care costs, the proven reduction in motivation and productivity.

Professor Sutton is now known as “the asshole guy,” which is not a name he likes, but which he takes in his stride. He hit a nerve with his book, one that is so irritated and raw that even 11 years later, he regularly receives notes of gratitude and congratulations – and especially desperate mails asking for his advice about what to do when one is forced to work with people such as those so aptly described by Sutton in his book. The crisis seems to be major, which is why he published a follow-up edition in 2017: “The Asshole Survival Guide.” According to Sutton, the problem has grown since publication of his first book because society has generally become ruder.

The subjective impression that one often has to deal with unpleasant contemporaries in traffic, in the neighborhood and also at work, is not an illusion. Sutton has a simple explanation for this: the chronic fatigue of a 24-hour society leads to ruthless inconsideration. In the laboratory, it is actually very easy to have someone get nasty – all that is needed is stress and sleep deprivation.

“Working together in the office eight hours a day, five days a week, requires a respectful interaction with each other.” Gustav Hilpert (left) and Sion Huws at the BSI Christmas dinner. The two worked together on a project for the Swiss Post.

And yet it does not seem to matter to a majority of companies whether their employees have a pleasant character or not. In many companies, there remains an ingrained attitude that a decent person is the wrong choice to fill certain positions, and may even negatively impact the bottom line. They seem to think that a so-called Gordon Gekko is what is required for certain functions, a Wall Street banker type with breath- taking arrogance and a gigantic ego, as played by Michael Douglas – truly and thoroughly an asshole in a “Suttonese” sense.

The film was in theaters back in the 1980s, which means: it goes back quite a way. Nevertheless, the macho culture is still considered chic in certain industries, even if it seems ridiculous there as well. This is because it seems a throwback to bygone days, somewhat like someone who still insists on calling black people “niggers:” It’s embarrassing. Being nasty is nevertheless no guarantee of a successful career, as it does not pay off in the long term. Nasty people leave behind them a trail of people who are beaten and bruised, and the day may come when those victims are not there to provide support when it is needed.

Robert Sutton explicitly writes in his book that it is entirely possible to have a successful career without being a jerk. One should never make the mistake of confusing friendliness with weakness, or to consider niceness as harmless; nor to interpret it as a synonym for a lack of sharpness. Research among 84 CEOs in the USA rather shows that superiors who are distinguished by empathetic, affable behavior, who are able to listen and to apologize when necessary and who are open and polite, generate five times the revenue than their dictatorial colleagues.

Being nice does not mean saying yes and amen to everyone, nor to always nod your head and to never contradict. You can persistently present your point of view, stand up for some-thing with conviction or even vehemently defend an opinion. It is possible to argue, even to the extreme; you can be pas-sionate and committed and sometimes even lose the plot. It is an art to nevertheless remain decent, fair and to be the bigger person. Because anyone can be rude or, to put it in management speak, it is really no challenge to do so.

No asshole rule

Progressive companies have therefore long since introduced a no asshole rule. Among them are the leading hospitals in the USA or Netflix, the channel that has revolutionized tele- vision with the great series it produces. The same goes for Southwest Airlines (the world’s largest low-cost airline) and New Zealand Airlines (chosen as the airline of the year in 2010 and 2014). Of course, the rule is not officially called that, but when new employees sign an employment contract, it is made unambiguously clear to them that inconsiderate behavior will not be tolerated, and is, in fact, equally a reason for dismissal as is poor job performance. Netflix CEO Rees Hastings explains quite simply: “Other companies may tolerate ruffians. We simply find that they damage effective team work more than we are willing to tolerate.” And that goes, by the way, even if the ruffian is technically brilliant.

“Being nasty is nevertheless no guarantee of a successful career, because it does not pay out in the long term.” Aline Rippstein (left) and Rahel Hunziker discussing a marketing campaign.

What helps

These four major companies probably not only read the relevant studies, but also understood them: the best thing about being nice is that it does not cost anything. It is not even necessary to read this popular little book with which management staff is plagued, which may be superfluous and overly expensive on the shelf. It is far less expensive to use three simple words, and that might be all you need to start: “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me.” These are small words with major impact.

What also helps: to smile now and then; to pay someone a compliment; to hold doors for people; to do someone a favor, or to do something nice for someone; to be generous, supportive, ready to lend a hand, and to have a sense of humor and to not view yourself as the center of the universe. Actually, these are all things that are taught to children in the hope that they will turn out to be pleasant adults.

It is really very easy to be nice. And if you do it with a bit of consistency, make an effort to be friendly, charming or like-able, even if there basically is no reason for doing so, then this ultimately colors your behavior towards others and you also feel that way too – that is called the congruency principle.

All those who prefer not to be nice, to whom it seems too sweet and naive, who consider all this to be feminine nonsense – because they consider anything feminine to be inferior – can also approach the topic of being nice strategically, if that meshes better with their self-image. The maxim is: “kill them with kindness.” Which means: You are so friendly that it drives the opposing party crazy. And the friendlier you are, the more the other person goes nuts. This, however, requires a bit of practice. But it goes without saying that it is also a lot of fun.

Book recommendation

“Being nice does not mean saying yes and amen to everyone.”

Robert I. Sutton has struck a nerve with his books.
Bettina Weber