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I’d like to share with you a LinkedIn exchange I had on the topic of whether Being Nice is a good business strategy.
Questioner Is there power in being nice, with people in general or as a management tool? … Do you agree, or is this just so much psychobabble?
I haven’t read “The Power of Nice,” though I’m amused that we’ve created a culture where we believe we have to make a case for treating each other nicely. It can certainly be better business to screw people. Prof. Howard Stevenson of Harvard Business School did a study about that years ago. He concluded that being unethical did, indeed, pay, but it produces a world we don’t want to live in, so we tell stories like, “Being ethical is good business.”
In my life, I find when I’m centered and calm and at my best, I naturally want to be nice to people, and it feels darned good. And yeah, there’s more and more research supporting that position.
Questioner Are you saying there are times when the best thing to do is “screw people”?
The “best thing to do” depends on your value system. In business, if you value profits over people, you can sometimes maximize profits by screwing people. Nicotine-enhanced cigarette, anyone? Unethical behavior is common in business. The Conference Board did a study showing 60% of all people interviewed over a wide range of companies and industries routinely were asked to do unethical or illegal things. That makes it the majority way of doing business. That says to me that unethical behavior is more normal in the workforce than being female. (Copy of the study is available in PDF form here. See page 22.)
Personally, I value people over profits. I would love to live in a world where, if a business can legally, but unethically, make a profit, it would go out of business regardless of profitability. I used to stand up in meetings and point out when we were doing something unethical. Now I’m self-employed; honest self-examination isn’t a survival trait in corporate America. What was a survival trait, however, was the willingness to help everyone convince themselves that the profit-maximizing choice was also the ethically and morally “right” choice.
My own life has been a continual effort to deepen my integrity and building a life that aligns with my values. It disturbs me to see people damage their own integrity through self-denial.
That’s why I quoted Prof. Stevenson’s research. There’s this very comforting, but empirically false story that we can somehow maximize our business fortunes and our ethical/moral fortunes in one happy bundle. When we adopt the story, we get to have it all. When we face tough choices with very real tradeoffs between being a “good businessperson” and being a “good human being,” we relieve ourselves of having to confront the real choice, since our little story lets us maximize people OR profits, and claim that in the long run, our decision was magically best for both.
So back to your original questionâ€¦ I’ve had a very happy, satisfying, successful life on many levels, and have forgone chances to get a lot richer, legally, in ways that would have compromised my personal sense of integrity.
You may be different. If you prefer profits to people, then yeah, the best thing for you may be to screw people. I suspect if you do that, you’ll find yourself at life’s end surrounded by people you don’t like very much, with fewer happy memories than you might like. But that could simply be MY wishful thinking. I’m sure there are people who’ve been total jerks their whole life, accumulated huge fortunes, and died quite happy and quite oblivious to any suffering or harm they cause to others.
The good news is that you get to choose who youâ€™ll be.