No More Mr. Nice Guy

“I’d rather be good than nice.” A friend said that to me years ago, and it’s become something of a mantra for me ever since. Nice is… nice. But without good behind it, nice lacks substance and can even be hurtful.

A colleague told me one time how she was frustrated with herself for letting a client down. The client asked her to jump through lots of unnecessary hoops, and that prevented her from doing her best work. My colleague took total ownership for failing to deliver solid results; it was especially disappointing because, as she told me, the client was so nice!

I would challenge her assessment of the experience. While the client might have been ‘nice’, she wasn’t a ‘good’ client. She expected my colleague to do things that were not only unnecessary, but they actually hampered my colleague from doing her job. Smiling, saying please, and being generally pleasant are positive attributes, but they don’t make your requests reasonable or appropriate. How often do we mistake nice for good and get tripped up?

The dictionary definition of nice is ‘pleasing; agreeable; delightful; amiably pleasant.’ Nice focuses on being liked. I believe that as humans we are wired to want to be liked, and we are also wired to want to take the easy way out. Nice people look good – they always get along with you, they never cause fights. But take a look at the definition of good:  ‘morally excellent; virtuous; righteous’ and ‘satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree; of high quality; excellent.’ Good has character, and good speaks of quality and excellence. Good wants what is best for all involved, not what is easiest for self in the moment.

Many years ago, in pre-HR days, I had a nice boss. Everyone said he was a nice guy, and he was. But he was so busy being nice that he wasn’t good. He couldn’t drive the organization forward because he couldn’t make tough decisions. Over time, business went downhill and he was let go.

Are there hard HR conversations that you are avoiding? It’s hard to tell the company president that his pet policies are hurting retention. It’s tough to call out a manager who wants to make a hiring decision that seems to be based on ‘like me’ bias. If you’ve had a manager come to you with performance concerns about her employee, but she gives that employee a high rating on a performance review, she may think she’s being a nice boss. But that’s not good for her employee, it’s not good business, and as HR it’s our job to challenge that.

As HR professionals, we can’t afford to be nice without being good. Nice wants to be liked, nice runs from confrontation, nice isn’t willing to do the hard work that change requires. We can’t be nice and disrupt HR. We can, however, be good. We can be good at what we do. We can be good people with good character. We can be good enough to address problems, challenge the status quo, and lead change. Wouldn’t you rather be good than nice?

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