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The Workplace: Why Nice guys finish last

April 13, 2008

In the early part of the 20th century Dale Carnegie wrote the classic “How to win Friends and Influence People.” It took the world by storm. It opened a whole new insight on how to build influential relationships. I haven’t read the book yet but apparently, its says that the secret to success is to be nice, open, listening, caring, etc etc. In other words, if you smother people with nice feelings and say pretty please they’ll do anything for you.

Well, its the 21st century and time for a reality check. What does the corporate jungle tell me about their leaders’ characters? Here’s a few sample keywords.

opinionated decisive loud abrasive
judgemental authoritarian egoistic clannish
favoritist articulate good-talker opportunist
firm aloof aggressive confrontational
cunning devious survivor impatient
bad-listener stubborn forceful

Now either Dale Carnegie lived in an alternate universe or we do but jeez, there’s not many nice words is there. I’m told some of the best ceos don’t even smile at all (maybe their faces would crack if they tried?) So whatever happened to Mr Nice Guy?

From the corporate leaders I’ve studied, I see a consistent profile. Corporate warriors want to exude raw power. They want to be the alpha male, the one in control. They want their competitors to be afraid of them. And they want a compliant workforce who’ll fight their battles without asking too many questions.

You may disagree but I suspect people secretly want their leaders to be tough and tyrannical. Businesses are predatory in nature. Its just a fact of life. When hungry bears and cougars roam the jungle, instinct tells people its safer to walk with a fierce wolf leading the pack than a nice doggie that wags its tail at everything that moves. I do think the workplace resembles a wolfpack more than it does a smurf village. Just watch how staff generally regard their ceos with nervousness and fear, and watch the silent satisfaction when their feared leaders strike fear in the competition. It fits a pattern.

I’m not promoting corporate bullying as something desirable and I don’t particularly enjoy the company of egoistic, condascending and predatory people either. Its one of the reasons why I left the corporate pack. I’m just describing what I observe.

How long can Mr Nice Guy survive in leadership positions? I don’t know, I admit its tough to see how love and sunshine can beat cunning aggression on the streets. Heck we learn that in school didn’t we. Isn’t it true that the bully always gets the goodies while the victims always get the counseling?

No I don’t think times have changed so move over Dale, I’ll take Sun Tzu any day.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2008 12:01 pm

    I think it really depends. Yes, in our cruel and harsh corporate world…the cunning and evil ones tend to do better than our typical mr nice guy.

    but one thing that i don agree is. why do people, the upper mgmt, wanna b so tensed up….not smiling at all…not greeting people at up….acting like the “predators” and stuff ……… when at the end of the day…… what can they gain for behaving like a screwed up person that nobody likes?

    i really respect those leaders who do not have this air of “superioty” about them…. not the “action” type of leaders. i prefer to work with such people….humble and reasonable people. by working with them, u get to grow n develop urself and not being pushed around by the ego-maniacs.

    maybe that’s why i know that i m not suited to climb the corprate ladder…esp with this kind of thinking.

  2. Damien permalink*
    April 13, 2008 8:46 pm

    Alvin: Yes I asked the same question too, why does the system reward nastiness and underhandedness. Maybe that’s the reason they call it a dog eat dog world where only the meanest dog gets ahead. Its one of life’s mysteries.

  3. April 22, 2008 3:22 am

    I’ve worked with the best and the worst of bosses (to me, at least). The best I’ve had was one heck of a nice guy to his own ‘kids’ and went like a pit bull against other depts or even the top dog himself. We could depend on him to defend our backs, but of course we had to perform. He used to walk out the door at 5.30pm and told us, “Guys, you gotta go home sometimes”… We clocked in lots of overtime then.

    You should read Dale Carnegie’s book, at least to see what he had to say. I read that book about half a dozen times just to see where it doesn’t apply and I can say; well, in lots of situations. You gotta play by ear how you want to apply those principles. None of them work if you don’t apply them in the right circumstances.

    I’d say the system doesn’t reward softies, nice guys just because they’re nice, or nasty, or aggressive guys per se, but those who bet against the odds, work effectively and win their boss’ approval for producing results in spite of their reputation. Whether they’re good or bad in their employees’ eyes makes no difference to those who keep their eyes only on the ROI.

  4. Damien permalink*
    April 22, 2008 9:12 pm

    My theory is that there is a link between ROI and the way people manage, and the way people manage is related to their risk averseness. I once had a boss who broke all sales records but was clinically declared a mental case (abusiveness & schizo). His numbers looked good on paper but his staff turnover was crazy. When we contra’d off the cost of resignations, recruiting, retraining & opportunity cost, we actually ended up with a net loss. On top of that his reputation of staff bashing drove up the cost of recruiting which upset the bean counters. So in my case it definitely spooked the ROI custodians.

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