Cutting-Edge Leadership

The best in current leadership research and theory, from cultivating charisma to transforming your organization

Do Nice Guys Finish Last? Four Rules For Terminally Nice People

How to be successful and stay nice.

I usually don't let my blog get too personal, but throughout my life I've heard that "nice guys (and gals - let's not be sexist!) finish last." This is usually in the form of personal advice from friends and colleagues. I've been scolded: "Don't be so nice!" "Learn to say ‘no'" "Put yourself first." "Don't give in so easily." Maybe you have been told the same things, too? Do you too suffer from "terminal niceness syndrome?"

Stay True to Yourself.

You probably aren't going to just stop being nice. [I just read some of Dick Cheney's autobiography - he's always going to be an asshole, and you are likely always going to be nice.]. "Niceness" is a manifestation of personality traits - most prominent is Agreeableness. Personality traits don't change much over time (and are difficult to intentionally change). The lesson here is: learn to live with your niceness. It has gotten you this far, so it's probably working well. If it isn't then pay attention to some of the other rules.

Just Walk Away. Choose Your Battles

One problem that nice/agreeable people have is that they feel bad after an interpersonal conflict. That makes sense because interpersonal harmony is an important goal of the nice. So, often the best thing to do when you realize that a conflict situation is imminent is to just walk away, particularly if you suspect that the conflict will not be resolved in this encounter. BUT, if the situation is an important one, and needs to be resolved, then it is time to stand your ground. Be assertive. Stand up for yourself. The point here is to choose when to fight and when not to, and avoid unnecessary conflict situations, particularly with people who you know thrive on interpersonal conflict (the opposite of the terminally nice folks!).

Kill Them With Kindness

You are nice. Accept that as a strength. I've found that you can often "wear people down" by continuing to be cordial, polite, and avoiding unnecessary conflict. Some suspicious folks think that another's kindness is just a façade - a ploy designed to take advantage. Those people often come around after they realize the niceness is genuine.

I've found that over time, the niceness pays off with many people. It builds trust. You get a reputation as someone who is a good team player, and someone who more than pulls his or her weight. Of course, this can lead to being taken advantage of, and so the next rule is important.

The 3 Strikes Rule.

People can and do take advantage of the nice. That's why I've found it important to adhere to the 3 strikes rule. If someone is mean/disagreeable/attacking, turn the other cheek. Sometimes "a soft word does indeed turneth away the wrath." I give them another chance. They misbehave again. I give them a second chance (I told you I'm terminally nice). Most people back off at this point. IF, however, they persist. That is it. Three strikes and you are out! Most importantly, this is where I stop being nice. "Speak softly, but carry a big stick." End the interaction (and the relationship).

I know that nice people get taken advantage of. I know that nice people can often be the target of bullies. That is why this last rule is important. You need to develop that "big stick" - to learn to draw the line, fight back when necessary, and be willing to walk away permanently.

Rather than looking at niceness as a weakness or liability, let's go back to kindergarten, and the lessons that were taught:

• Play nice with others.
• Be fair.
• Share everything.
• Don't hit people or say mean things
• Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
• AND, Clean up your own mess

So, terminally nice people should be proud. They learned these lessons early on, and they continue to practice them.

E-mail this to a "too nice" friend!

Follow me on Twitter:

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.


Subscribe to Cutting-Edge Leadership

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.