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Forget being nice at work and do these 5 science-backed things instead

Good organizational citizenship is a key ingredient of your job performance, and being rewarding to deal with is a strong and consistent predictor of success.

Forget being nice at work and do these 5 science-backed things instead
[Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images]

Oscar Wilde once noted that “some people bring happiness wherever they go, others, whenever they go.” The difference between these two types of people largely boils down to psychological traits, ranging from emotional stability, EQ, people skills, agreeableness, and just plain manners. Contextual factors, such as organizational culture, team dynamics, and other people, matter, too–which is why the same individual may behave nicely in some settings, but be toxic in others.

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Unfortunately, we are not always rewarded for being nice. As Jeffrey Pfeffer notes in his brilliant recent book on power, warmth and kindness are often interpreted as a sign of weakness, especially if you haven’t demonstrated your competence yet. To make matters worse, narcissistic and psychopathic individuals often rise to the top of organizational hierarchies, at times by taking advantage of other people’s honesty and integrity, advancing their own interests at the expense of the system, just like parasites.

And yet, in the long run, our reputation does depend on how we treat others, especially when we have no extrinsic reasons to be nice. Good organizational citizenship is a key ingredient of your job performance, and being rewarding to deal with is a strong and consistent predictor of how you are evaluated by your boss.

Although few organizations formally incorporate peer-ratings of our reputation in our formal performance evaluations, it would be logical to do so. The opinions our colleagues have of us paint a more accurate picture of our professional self than those of our manager. 

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Regardless of your style and personality there are always opportunities to improve your behavior at work. Here are some simple, science-backed recommendations:

Listen more: As a recent academic review indicates, the more you listen, the more others trust and like you. Listening more also increases your effectiveness as a leader, and the degree to which others perceive you as leader-like. Increasing your listening skills is also rather easy: shut up, pay attention to what others say, repeat.

Make others better: The best leaders are often great coaches, same goes for colleagues and employees. If you make an effort to understand others, and do what you can to improve their performance and help them fulfill their potential, they will appreciate you, and you will end up harnessing your own leadership skills.

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Avoid superficial or fake ingratiation: Although ingratiation can be very effective, it must be perceived as genuine. In other words, whether you mean it or not, you must be deemed “authentic” by others, or it will backfire. You must put on an honest performance. As Irwin Goffman notes in his seminal essay on the subject: “If you have paid a compliment to one man, or have used toward him any expression of particular civility, you should not show the same conduct to any other person in his presence.”

Avoid unnecessary arguments: This may sound obvious, but arguments are a major source of workplace conflict, and the main destroyer of team effectiveness and team collaboration. It is generally easier to feel right than to be nice, but the two don’t have to be incompatible. As Dale Carnegie famously noted, “the only way to win an argument is to avoid having it.” Although a healthy degree of conflict, like a moderate level of well-meaning, rational arguing is instrumental, it is advisable to pick your battles wisely.

Be more tolerant: While empathy, the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives and actually care for them, is often associated with workplace kindness, it is certainly not enough. Consider that the overlap between empathy and prosocial behavior is only about 9%, and that you don’t need to have an emotional connection with someone to treat them well, and exercise rational kindness.

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While current diversity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives mean well when they ask us to not just tolerate, but also embrace and celebrate others, humans are not pre-wired for diversity. This is precisely why we are much more likely to empathize with people who share our gender, age, race, and nationality. The best way to build an inclusive culture is to treat others with respect, especially when you don’t understand or agree with them. This simple formula worked for millennia: I may be unable to love my neighbor, but luckily, I can be nice and cordial to him, and still bitch about him at home. By the same token, I don’t expect my colleagues to truly like me, but so long as they treat me well, they should be free to complain about me at home, especially if I never find out.

The above factors are far from counter-intuitive, but the fact is that few people live by it, which is precisely what makes each point so effective. The pressures of work, and life, combined with a zeitgeist that fosters a self-obsessed, even narcissistic mindset, means too many people forget how important it is to treat others well, though they are perfectly aware of how much they like being treated well by others. 

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About the author

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, cofounder of deepersignals.com, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab

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