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Why being nice isn’t always good for your career

Being nice is great, but it can also have a real downside if you’re prioritizing niceness over honesty.

Why being nice isn’t always good for your career
[Photo: Derya Olgun/iStock]

Being considered nice is, well, nice, but it can come with a cost at work. Prioritizing niceness often means not being honest or critical, and sometimes that can hurt the company or your career in the long run.

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If you’re concerned with being nice, however, you’re not alone. In a study of 1,000 full-time employees across the U.S. by the leadership development and training company Fierce, 63% of respondents said they’ve chosen not to share a concern or negative feedback at work because they didn’t want to seem combative, uncooperative, or be viewed in a negative light.

Respondents said it’s important to be considered nice by their coworkers for these top three reasons:

  1. They find work is more enjoyable when they get along with their colleagues.
  2. It makes it easier to get things done.
  3. They will get more interesting work/more opportunities if people like working with them.

“It’s human nature to want people to like you,” says Stacey Engle, president of Fierce. “From the time we’re young, we’re trained to be nice, which means we’re trained to be ineffective in conversations. The saying, ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ can get in the way if you don’t have communication skills to engage in important challenges and opportunities.”

The missing point is that being nice also means raising issues, Engle continues. “Oftentimes we’re fearful or don’t have the skills, so we tiptoe around issues,” she says. “That needs to shift.”

Niceness comes with a cost

Being nice can eventually lead to personal unhappiness in several instances. For example, a manager may avoid confronting an employee on their disruptive behavior, either ignoring it or pushing it off on the HR department.

“Sometimes people want to sugarcoat a message about someone’s behavior that needs to change,” says Engle. “This can be extremely time-consuming. A lot of time is spent pulling others into the toxicity versus someone saying, ‘Look, John, this is what I’ve noticed. Talk with me more about this.’ Engage in real issues versus circumventing them.”

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Creating a culture of communication

Honest conversations aren’t easy, but companies can create a culture in which they are the norm. One of most important ways to do this is for leaders to model the behavior they want to see, and be open to perspectives that are different than your own, says Engle.

“Some employees don’t speak up because they’ve made up a story in their head that the other person isn’t willing to hear what they have to say,” she says. “If they don’t see the behavior being modeled, it confirms their bias.”

Modeling behavior is especially important for female leaders. The study found that when it comes to negative feedback, 56% of men and 69% of women opted not to share.

“It’s not a giant spread, but it is a big one,” says Engle. “We need women modeling and helping others build the skill set. The goal is to create a collaborative environment.”

Managers may have to directly ask for honest feedback. In the study, respondents said they were least comfortable sharing concerns and negative feedback in one-on-one meetings with their boss, company leadership, or colleagues.

Make time to have deeper levels of conversation with direct reports, suggests Engle. “Ask them what they think gets in the way of talking about real issues here,” she says. “Let them know that you want to hear their real perspective.”

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Reframe what “nice” really means. “Is it nice that we beat around a topic, or is the right thing to do [what’s] best for everyone?” asks Engle. “You can be respectful and demonstrate good intentions not knowing what the ending looks like. The fact that we don’t engage at all, however, can be the source of our biggest pains.”

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