Posted April 22, 2008 -- As anyone who has ever watched "The Apprentice" knows, business is a tough game to play. Sometimes it can seem like getting ahead requires putting your interests above those of others and capitalizing on the misfortune of fellow workers.
But is it true that nice guys finish last at work? Not likely.
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A positive, friendly disposition can be a valuable career asset. In fact, a study published in the Harvard Business Review found that personal feelings toward an individual are more significant in the formation of productive work relationships than how competent the person is.
Your ability to connect with others is especially important as the business world becomes increasingly global and companies seek individuals who can collaborate with diverse teams of employees and outside contacts. In a survey of executives by Robert Half International, 93 percent of respondents said they expect staff members to work on project-based teams more frequently in the next 10 to 15 years. Those who are pleasant and easy to get along with will have the greatest success in forming effective professional partnerships.
Often, being nice boils down to just a few key factors, including respecting the opinions of co-workers, offering to lend colleagues a hand when needed and being courteous in all of your interactions.
But there is a difference between being nice and being a pushover.
For example, you may try so hard to be liked that you seem disingenuous or, in times of uncertainty or transition, out of touch with reality. And some professional situations simply require you to take a stand, even if you'd prefer not to. Being overly accommodating also can cause you to shoulder a disproportionate amount of work, lose out on promotion opportunities and suffer from burnout. Following are five situations where the difference between being nice and being too nice is slight but significant. With which category do you most closely align?
Situation No. 1
Being nice: Offering to stay late to help a colleague finish a project before he leaves on vacation. As a result, you build goodwill and increase the likelihood your co-worker lends you a hand when needed.
Being too nice: Offering to stay late every night because you have a hard time telling colleagues that your plate is full. As a result, you're unable to achieve a healthy work/life balance and begin to burn out.
Situation No. 2
Being nice: Receiving kudos from a satisfied client on a job well done and forwarding the message to those who worked on the project with you to let them know that everyone's effort was appreciated. As a result, the entire team gets a morale boost.
Being too nice: Receiving kudos from a satisfied client on a job well done and giving all the credit to those on your team because you don't want to seem self-serving. As a result, your accomplishments go unnoticed and higher-ups do not realize the true value you bring to the firm.
Situation No. 3
Being nice: Reviewing a new colleague's work and discussing the areas you would modify, explaining your reasoning behind each change. As a result, the new employee is able to produce better results next time.
Being too nice: Reviewing a new colleague's work and making any necessary changes yourself to avoid potentially hurting her feelings. As a result, you take on more work, and the new employee is likely to turn in an assignment of similar quality the next time.
Situation No. 4
Being nice: Proposing a new idea during a meeting and acknowledging the input you received from another staff member. As a result, your supervisor realizes your contribution to company strategy and ability to collaborate with others on business solutions.
Being too nice: Not speaking up during a meeting when someone else takes credit for your idea because you'd rather not make waves. As a result, your co-worker is rewarded for your hard work.
Situation No. 5
Being nice: After discovering a colleague gave you poor direction on a project, you take him aside to discuss strategies for avoiding similar confusion in the future. As a result, mistakes can be prevented and other projects can be completed more efficiently.
Being too nice: After discovering a colleague gave you poor direction on a project, you say nothing to avoid making him feel bad and focus on how you can get better information on your own next time. As a result, you and your co-worker do not operate as a team, threatening the success of future collaborative efforts.
Do nice employees finish last? Of course not. Going out of your way to be friendly and helpful can only enhance your career prospects. But don't take the concept to the extreme. Nice does not mean letting people walk all over you. You need to be assertive and willing to stand up for yourself if you want to finish first.