It pays to be nice. Being nice and the art of leadership

In all of the grand plans to grow a successful organisation one could be forgiven for wondering why the word nice would appear on a list of values or leadership qualities. There is a tendency to trivialise this characteristic in the description of a leader in preference for sharper, cleaner words such as determined, focused, driven or committed. Rarely nice. Perhaps seen as a form of weakness, particularly when set again the harsh challenges of a competitive business landscape, there are many factors which could negate the perception of a leader as nice.

Yet, the challenges we face in developing strong leadership would be significantly improved by an acceptance that it is OK to be nice and that this is an essential quality to build engaged, committed teams. Being nice is a mindset, an approach to leadership that places compassion, humility and empathy at the forefront of leading people, without shying away from difficult issues or compromising focus.

“Just be nice” was a key reflection from Bobbi Brown, founder of the global make-up and cosmetic brand whose company was acquired by Estee Lauder in 1995, at a recent networking event when speaking about her approach to the growth of her organisation. Being nice was her intention from the outset, she noted, and it paid you back.

Research also supports the idea that being nice gets results. Amongst the most prominent is the work of Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and Associate Professor from the Harvard Business School, who distinguishes between the qualities of strength and warmth. She contends that too often leaders opt to project strength before establishing trust and run the risk of eliciting fear and a host of other dysfunctional factors, finding instead that there is a body of research suggesting that the way to influence – and to lead – is to begin with warmth. The argument is that warmth is the conduit of influence: it facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.

Crucially, leaders who are able to build trust and keep the lines of communication open are more effective at being responsive to the demands of change, which directly impacts on the performance of an organisation. These leaders focus on engagement as both a priority and a discipline to ensure a level of agility within a team to make change happen, working collaboratively to ensure a smooth transition to the new state.

Adopting the mindset of being nice provides the ability to influence and drive performance. It places engagement at the heart of the change process and is part and parcel of emotionally intelligent, authentic leadership.