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Why it pays to be nice… and how not to get taken advantage of

Does it pay to be nice?

The jury is out on whether ‘nice guys’ finish ‘first’ or ‘last’. There are several examples on both ends of the spectrum. Elon Musk, for example, is known for being a not-so-nice guy. His ‘rage firings’ are legendary. Steve Jobs was another, not known for his niceness. Unless he really wanted something. Both very successful business leaders. On the ‘nice’ side, Richard Branson is a great example. Well summed up in his famous quote- “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to. If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers…”

So, is it better to be loved, or feared? Machiavelli seemed unsure saying “One should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved”. According to behavioral scientists, when we are judged by others, there are two aspects they look at – how lovable we are (our warmth, or trustworthiness) and how fearsome we are (our strength, or competence). Put into, what I’ll call a Machiavelli matrix, it looks something like this

High competence alone might get you respect. The problem is that its fleeting. Besides, with a history of being abrasive, given a chance you’re open to people getting back at you Steve Jobs was a prime example. A lot of the downturns he faced stemmed from him not being nice. Even his 12 years separation from Apple stemmed from him trying to engineer a coup to remove the then Apple CEO. Despite his obvious brilliance, the Apple Board sided with the CEO. Jobs succeeded despite being nasty, not because he was.

On the other hand, if you back up your competence with niceness, you can build yourself a nice fan club. Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google is one of the busiest men on the planet. Yet, he took the time out to respond to a 7-year-old girls job application to Google. The internet was abuzz discussing the matter and Pichai added a lot of fans. It helps define the Google culture and makes people look up to you as a leader and your company as a great place to work. And attracting the best talent doesn’t hurt!

When an Uber investor was asked about the abrasive Travis Kalanick, he said, “It’s hard to be a disrupter and not be an asshole.” Yet, tough and nice don’t have to be incompatible. It’s only that you need to follow two rules when being ‘nice’. First, know the difference between being nice and not being assertive. Great leaders let people know when somethings wrong. They know what they want, and they don’t hesitate to tell people about it. Two, being nice doesn’t mean saying yes to everything. Boundaries need to be set for everything- when people can approach you, how much time you give and choosing how to help a person who asks for it.

Be careful about…

1. Being nice can be challenging. Every time someone takes advantage of your niceness, the temptation to move away is strong. You must take the decision to be nice every single day.
2. Being nice isn’t about being nice on the surface. It’s about being that way all the way to your core. So, it’s much more than sweet talking your way into someone liking you!


Nice guys often finish last. But they also often finish first. Too nice, and you’re a slave to everyone else’s agenda. You won’t get time to focus on your own. But if you are nice, high on competence and can set boundaries, chances are you’ll be first. Not-so-nice guys who finish first over the long-term are the exception.
And most importantly, being nice allows you a wealth of strong relationships. Whether or not they make a difference to how much money you make. Or how much professional success you have. At the end of the day strong relationships are the true measure of our wealth!

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