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Are We Becoming "Nicer?"

"Niceness" is on the rise.

Despite the attention drawn to the rude and crude, represented by numerous TV shows such as Housewives of…(name your city), and “smack-talking” entertainment stars and celebrities, we see a trend in the past few years towards “niceness.” Being nice was once seen as being sentimental, maudlin, saccharine and weak.

We’ve often heard the phrase, “I don’t like him but I respect him,” or reference is made comparing someone to a certain part of the anatomy while expressing some degree of admiration. In particular, our culture for some time has embraced the notion that the strongest, toughest and most aggressive leaders get the job done and is more desirable, than more “likeable,” or humble people who are viewed to be weak.

If we take the narrow perspective seeing the world through the news media, TV and movies, our world is going to hell in a hand basket. The inordinate coverage and projection of violence, crime, aggression, meanness and incivility gives an inaccurate, and unfortunately influential view of the world.

Now, we see with increasingly frequency, movies and TV shows such as New Girl, in which niceness and “sweetness” are becoming popular. “Nice” goes by many names—compassionate, empathetic, good, unselfish, open, kind, and cooperative. It’s as if we have had enough of the darkness of our nature, and we’re fed up with cynicism, negativism, and meanness.

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Even in professional sports, we hear a louder questioning about the intentional violence, dishonesty and selfishness of athletes, and a yearning for a return to the fundamental values of sportsmanship and good character in sports.

Yet research shows us an entirely different picture. Harvard Professor Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker points out that we are in fact living “in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence,” with violence at an all-time low. Pinker contends on issues such as civil rights, the role of women, equality for gays, and the violent treatment of children and animals, we have become far more liberal than conservative in our attitudes.

David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, cites an increasing body of research that shows the human species is increasingly more sympathetic, empathetic, cooperative and collaborative, challenging the stereotypic Darwinian survival of the fittest through selfish and aggressive genes.

Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield, authors of SuperCooperators, use mathematics to demonstrate cooperation and competition are entwined, arguing that by pursuing our self-interested goals, we often have incentive to replay kindness and compassion and generosity and “establish a reputation for niceness, so people will want to work with us.” Michael Tomasello, author of Why We Cooperate, shows research, which demonstrates that even human infants readily cooperate by sharing food.

Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval, the authors of The Power of Nice: How To Conquer the Business World With Kindness, argue that where so many companies encourage a dog-eat-dog mentality. Contrary to this conventional wisdom, nice people finish first. The authors show how nice companies have lower employee turnover, lower recruitment costs and higher productivity; nice people live longer, are healthier and make more money. They argue, in today’s interconnected, Internet-available world, both organizations and people with a reputation for cooperation and fair play forge the kind of relationships that led to bigger and better opportunities in business and life.

Research by Jon Bohlmann and Rob Handfield of North Carolina State University, Tianjao Qiu of California State university, William Qualls and Deborah Rupp of the University Illinois published in The Journal of Product Innovation Management, shows that project managers got much better performance from their team when they treated team members with honesty, kindness and respect. Bohlmann explains “if you think you re being treated well, you are going to work well with others on your team.”

Barry Bergman, author of Nice Guy Finish First: How To Succeed in Business and Life, argues building successful business isn’t rocket science, but a simple strategy of conducting your business in an ethical manner, treating others with respect and creating balance in life. The book’s engaging anecdotes describe how respectful and honest behavior are effective counterbalances to the stereotypical negative and unethical behavior of people.

In an article in the Christian Science Monitor, Marilyn Garner argues, “in a competitive age that sometimes takes a “nice guys finish last” approach to business, a quiet cultural change appears to be underway. ‘Nice’ and ‘kind’ are becoming operative philosophies in some companies…these adjectives are also showing up in the titles of books and organizations.” A stark contrast to the language of business in the past several decades, full of words and images of war, conflict and games.

The company Edelman has developed a “trust barometer,” which can be used to gauge the degree to which you can trust any organization. Among the attributes that make up a high score on trust are things such as positive treatment of employees, ethical practices and a positive impact on the community. “There’s a huge shift we’ve observed,” says Russ Edelmen, “companies are fundamentally say ‘We need to employ more ethical practices as well as create an environment that supports a nicer mind-set…an environment that is friendly, welcoming and warm.”

So we have often also heard the expression that “nice guys” finish last, whether it’s in reference to the choice of a new CEO or a prospective date.  But do nice guys really finish last? Or is that another myth we need to abandon?

Sir Richard Branson, in his interview in Entrepreneur magazine, was asked if aggression is necessary for business success. He replied by saying he believed he was successful at Virgin “because we engaged with everyone in a positive, inclusive manner rather than an aggressive, combative or negative way.”

David Rand, a post-doctoral fellow in Harvard’s Department of Psychology, is lead author of a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that dynamic, complex social networks encourage their members to be friendlier and more cooperative, while selfish behavior can lead to an individual being shunned from the group.

Rand concludes people in social networks re-write their social networks in intriguing ways that helped both themselves and the group they were in. They were more willing to make new connections or maintain existing connections with those who acted generously and break connections with those who behaved selfishly. “Basically, what it boils down to is that you’d better be a nice guy, or else you’re going to get cut off,” he says.

Nicola Saidi, writing for CNN Living online, commented on how New York, which as a reputation for tough, hard-nosed people, commented on how a police officer gave a pair of boots to a homeless man near Times Square. A photo posed on a NYPD Facebook page received 338,00 (and counting) likes and 22,000 comments, almost all positive. Saidi asks, “Is New York getting nicer?”

Greg James, a BBC Radio 1 host has become a hit partly because of his relaxed, pleasant delivery, and self-effacing stories. His show is enormously popular with polite, middle class teenage fans. People react to his niceness in kind.

What about the Internet?

The Internet, especially social media, has often been portrayed as a “hostile, predatory, somewhat haunted space,” argues Nathan Heller in the New York Magazine. Yet, he says “life online has become friendly, well mannered, oversweet. Everyone is his or her very best behavior—and if they’re not, they tend to be quickly iced out of the conversation…it has become the way the Internet lives now.”

The Internet now, particularly Twitter and Facebook is full of “do-goodism, social activism and upbeat entrepreneurialism,” Heller, contends, “there’s less and less patience with anything else.” He claims that the “web has not just started championing the good; it has begun policing it.”

Has this change come about as a result of a sudden improvement in our civility? Heller says no. Rather, he outlines several other reasons: First, the sheer volume of traffic has shifted from a “free for all” to a place where “ads and goods are sold and nastiness is a threat to good business.” And the rise of the social web continues the self-regulated mechanism of web reputation. No-one can hide on the Internet anymore. You can be found out, and in short time a massive number of people will enhance or destroy your reputation as an individual or company. Heller also contends that part of the reason for the rise of niceness on the web is that we “put more and more of our real lives online then we begin to take our cues in real life from the web.”

Dachel Keltner, a University of California psychologist and author of Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, and a number of his fellow colleagues are building the case that humans are the successful dominant species because of our compassionate, kind, altruistic and nurturing traits. One of these studies has shown that many people are genetically predisposed to be empathetic. “The new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin’s observations nearly 130 years ago that compassion is our strongest instinct,” argues Keltner.

University of California, Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, argues the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. He contends “that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated, but those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.”

Jonathan Haidt, author of Righteous Mind, reflects the view of Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson and others who argue that when groups of animals compete, it’s the cohesive, cooperative, internally altruistic groups that win and pass on their genes. Stephen Post, president of the Institute on Unlimited Love at Case Western Reserve University, and author of several studies published by such groups as the American Medical Association, and author of Why Good Things happened to Good People, has written about the link between good thoughts and good deeds.

Modern evidence seems to suggest that nice guys do indeed finish first, and we want them to, and the phenomenon of  “being nice” and all that entails, seems to be growing.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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