A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported recently in The Guardian found that disagreeable individuals – that is people who exhibit “aggressive, selfish, and manipulative” behaviour – are no more likely to get ahead in business than those who engaged in “communal and generous” behaviour. In other words, and contrary to what a lot of us have been told since school – nice guys don’t necessarily finish last.
I have to say I find this encouraging for a number of reasons, both professional and personal.
It reminded me of two very formative moments in my career as a project manager. The first of these was early in my career, when I had only managed a few projects and was starting to find my feet and figure out what sort of project manager I was. My manager – an inspirational leader named Tim Bretman, who has since become a cherished mentor and a great friend – had become concerned that I was too nice. Now, in fairness to him, he didn’t mean this badly – his intention was for me to show greater leadership, to not appear before my project team as someone who could have the wool pulled over his eyes. He was also trying to help me become more assertive when managing upwards – to be more confident in front of senior managers. At our annual review, he set me an interesting objective: “This time next year, Jeremy, I want to have received a complaint about you.” Now, he didn’t mean that I should be hauled up on a charge of gross negligence or anything like that. What he wanted was for someone, over the course of the year to pull him to one side and have a whinge because I had told them they couldn’t have something. As a good project manager, this would be a valuable lesson – you have to be comfortable occasionally telling people the things they can’t have.
A year later, I had failed in my objective. No-one complained. But Tim was upbeat when we met for our annual review. On the contrary, he said – I hadn’t failed. I had just managed to find a way to say “no” in my own voice. I had thought that I should be deliberately aggravating. I had thought that perhaps I should be confrontational in the way I shut someone down. Perhaps he thought I should have a shouting match with someone when the project wasn’t going the way I planned. But that wasn’t the intention at all. The intention was to help me find my own voice. Over the course of the year, I had in fact stood up to several people. I had delivered bad news and I had made difficult decisions which I had to account for. Although Tim had not received his complaint, he had succeeded in pushing me to find out how I wanted to be as a project manager.
Fast forward five years to the second formative moment. I was working for a different manager, and a different client on a very challenging project which was in real trouble. Morale was seriously low. People were working long hours, work-life balance had gone out the window and the project was widely considered to be beyond help. I was in charge of a small team working on one aspect of the project and though things were bad, we had recently turned a corner and were starting to see small glimmers of hope amongst the devastation. But we were a long way from done. On this occasion, the manager I was reporting to told me directly that I had to be more demonstrably angry with the team. If I was going to succeed in business, I had to get tough on the people who worked for me. I needed to tell them to work harder, and to tear a strip off them when their work was anything less than gold-standard. His belief was that people didn’t respond to the carrot anyway near as much as they did to the stick. I didn’t – and still don’t – agree with him.
It got me thinking and (perhaps belatedly) I realised that there are many things that would be outside of my control over the course of my career, but one thing that was absolutely inside my control was how I chose to behave in business. And that’s why I could no more have walked into the room and screamed at my team than flown to the moon. Not because I wasn’t capable of doing it, but because it would not have been authentic. I would have been emulating the method that worked for this manager – not for me. You get to choose who you are in business and once you have started to figure out who that is, you will find it much easier to get things done, because you will be acting authentically, speaking in your own voice. In the end, I decided to manage my part of the project the way I saw fit, and in the end my team quickly started delivering results – at one point we were the only part of the wider project that was delivering. I left a few months later, unable to remain in what had become a completely toxic environment. That said, the manager is still there, doubtless making people’s working lives as unpleasant now as they were then. For all that I didn’t agree with his methods, he was at least speaking in his own voice. No-one doubted his authenticity.
The moral of the story is to take time out to understand what your values are – the kind of person you want to be in business. If you are acting according to your values, you will not go wrong. Even if things don’t always go your way, trust me, you won’t even mind as long as you can satisfy yourself that you acted according to how you want to be.
As a final point, it is worth noting that I take the same view when it comes to my personal life. When I was at secondary school, I was – like everyone else – occasionally plagued by awkwardness and embarrassment in front of the opposite sex. But I actually had a large group of female friends and for the majority of the time I was relaxed around them and, I think, easy company. Inevitably, in some cases, crushes would develop and I would eventually summon up the courage to Ask The Girl Out. This was normally followed by a tilt of the head, a gentle smile and The Rejection. What always got me though, was that the reason for the rejection was almost always that we had somehow found our way into the friend zone, and I was “just too nice” to be considered boyfriend material. I cannot tell you how irritated and frustrated 16-year-old Jeremy became by the “just too nice” badge. But I had a choice about who I could be. Ultimately I decided that, as a person, I would rather have been thought of as “nice” than as “not nice”.
I managed to break the cycle just after I left university. At 22 years old, I started dating a girl who responded positively to the apparently nice guy who had asked her out. It turned out that we both shared a lot of values and that one of them was a belief in the importance of being considerate to others. In our relationship, we were always considerate of what the other one wanted – in short, we were nice to each other. It’s easy to get nostalgic about it – it was 18 years ago after all. When I think back on it, there is an argument that we also ended up in the friend zone. But as well as being the best of friends, we’ve also been married for nearly ten years, have two wonderful children and have started a business together. Take that 16-year-old Jeremy. Sometimes the nice guys don’t finish last.