Why Being Nice at Work Can Backfire Badly, According to a Study

Disclaimer: This is a non-travel related post.

An article recently came out that suggests that being super nice at work can backfire badly, according to psychology.  I have conversations recently with some folks on a host of workplace topics, ranging from effective management styles to workplace conflicts. This article triggered some split opinions.  The article is making the assertion from a study that if you are super nice and productive at work, it can actually work against you because you may “make those around you look bad in comparison”.

The highlight:

Things are different at work when a real-life person starts playing the role of superhero, psychology professor Pat Barclay and his collaborators discovered when they brought study subjects into the lab to play a series of economic games. Exceptionally generous and hard-working colleagues make those around them look bad in comparison. Their superkindness and productivity challenge other employees to perform at the same level, and that can stir up nasty reactions, the researchers found.

This is an interesting paradox since niceness and productivity are traits that most people claim they want in a colleague.  The proposed solution of “finding better associates who are just as nice and hardworking as you” left me a little confused.  The reality is that you don’t get to choose the people you work with. Is the article suggesting looking for a job that might offer a better culture fit?

What Happens in a Real World Setting?

The article didn’t go deep with examples.  I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked in varied environments with some very talented colleagues, so I’ll share some two examples.

1.  The Guns are Blazing Approach

I once had a colleague (I’ll call him Dan) who was always polite and professional. He was always ready to roll up his sleeves, and he also had the technical chops to implement the solutions.  Yet, he bumped heads with the team.  While it would easy to group the issues as a byproduct of his productivity, I really observed it to be an underlying issue.  He had very specific ideas on how things should be done, even when they countered against the team’s feedback or the agreed upon “definition of done”.  This created conflicts and stress within the team.  That’s not to say his productivity didn’t play a role, as he blazed ahead at a different pace from the team’s. He eventually left for a start-up organization where I suspect the pace of work may be a better fit for his work style.

2.  The Gentler Guns are Blazing Approach (with Team)

I also had a colleague (I’ll call him Zack) who is smart and highly capable.   He is also one of the best communicators I have ever met.  He brought along new ideas and he readily shared his knowledge with the team.  I learned quite a bit from his approach.  He had a unique way of diplomatically questioning things and suggesting changes.  The team gradually adopted some of the changes into the workflow.

Be Who You Are

While the article’s premise is interesting, I think it missed a point.  Maybe the green-eye monster is a problem for some people, or maybe there’s something more below the surface.  I tend to think that it’s because highly productive people tend to effect change, and indirectly, more work.  People are naturally resistant to change, so any slight missteps would yield negative “reactions”.

One train of thought was that perhaps it would best not to be super nice or productive at work. That way, there would be fewer conflicts/stressors at work.  From a purely logical standpoint, it made sense. You can’t stir up anything if you don’t rock the boat.  Practically speaking,  I just don’t personally believe in the idea of blending in or wasting time just to avoid conflicts. Change is never easy, but I am of the camp that changes can lead to growth and progress.

Besides, I have also learned a long ago that you can’t be all things to everyone.  So, you should just be you, whether people like you or not.  Of course, I might add that you should always be a professional at work, even if you’re a naturally a grumpy and surly kind of person. 🙂

For my part, I don’t think I’ve ever felt threatened by anyone who is nicer or smarter or more productive than me. Rather, talented folks tend to inspire me to want to do better.  In fact, I’ll work with Dan and Zack any day over someone who is nice but not pulling his/her weights on the team.  That said, I would prefer to work with Zack a little better.

 

What’s your take and/or your personal experience?

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