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Bad Career Advice: Nice Guys Finish Last

This post is part of my Bad Career Advice series in which I expose outdated, clichéd, and counterproductive advice for exactly what it is.

So, there’s this race, right? A nice guy versus a jerk. Who’s gonna win? According to popular belief, the jerk takes the prize every time. Nice guys just can’t compete. Apparently, all that goodness just slows them down.

This generic advisory was probably started by one nice guy who got burned and vowed never to be so foolish again. I feel for him. Really, I do. But why does he have to ruin niceness for the rest of us?

Truth be told, the professional world has long considered the word “nice” synonymous with “weak.” Nice guys are powerless. They’re just asking to be taken advantage of. It’s assumed that niceness can’t coexist with anything other than fragility, a decidedly feminine trait unappreciated in the male-dominated world of business. Niceness and other such qualities are seen as unnecessary distractions at best; disastrous displays of incompetence at worst.

The only way to win the game, so we’re told, is to demonstrate that you have what it takes—the cut-throat, raw ambition and competitive spirit needed to take down anyone who gets in your way. Never mind talent and skill. That has little to do with it.

I’ve always been disturbed by the adage that nice guys finish last. It’s condescending and, in my opinion, completely false. Being nice does not necessarily mean that you’re weak. You don’t have to be an ass to be assertive or stand up for yourself when needed. Those who believe this might want to engage in some communications training.

And being nice doesn’t mean you’re inept. In what world does ability have any impact on social graces?

The real issue here is that this notion compels people to think in a one-man show, zero-sum way: I want to win therefore you have to lose. In order to not be the last one sliding into the finish line, I have to do everything in my power to stay one step ahead of you. And so the civility cap comes off.

In reality, much of business success isn’t about you winning a race. It’s about teamwork and getting the whole team to the goal line together. One person simply can’t do it all on his own.

And guess what? Teams don’t run too well with jerks. Successful teams encourage a sense of respect and yes, niceness among members. It goes a long way in getting people to support one another. After all, no one wants to help someone they don’t like. Unless you think you’ll never need the assistance of anyone else, niceness is an investment that pays off in all areas of life.

There’s another saying that I believe applies well in the business world: You catch more bees with honey than vinegar. Essentially, this means that niceness leads to a greater level of success than the alternative. In my experience, this is a more appropriate and productive way of thinking. It isn’t to say that you need to adopt a falsely sincere, sticky-sweet demeanor in order to trick people into giving you what you want. It simply means that niceness isn’t a hindrance; it’s an asset.

Need some proof? Just ask Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines. This is what he recently wrote in an article on Entrepreneur.com:

There are lots of ways to get your point across and make your business successful without being aggressive. Always remember that you love what you do and your role is to persuade others to love your business, too, and, therefore, to want to work with you. I hope we are successful at Virgin because we engage with everyone in a positive, inclusive manner rather than in an aggressive, combative or negative way.

Photo Credit: jayneandd (Flickr)

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3 Responses to “Bad Career Advice: Nice Guys Finish Last”

  1. […] a nice person, I know. And nice is good! That old saying that “nice guys finish last” is a myth. Niceness, by and large, is an asset to building relationships—both personal and […]

  2. […] a nice person, I know. And nice is good! That old saying that “nice guys finish last” is a myth. Niceness, by and large, is an asset to building relationships—both personal and […]

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