Why Being Quite Nice to People Is Actually Really Important

Why Being Quite Nice to People Is Actually Really Important

Written by Professional Academy Management & Leadership Tutor Toby Townrow

Ah, business-speak. Don’t you just love it? When people in “important” positions use important-sounding but ultimately meaningless terms? One of my own personal bugbears (apart from “going forward” which I would have banned – do you say it at home? Do you ask your significant other to make sure that “going forward, could you empty the dishwasher in a more timely manner?” No? Well, why do you say it at work, then?), is the phrase “Staff Retention”.

I get why it exists as a phrase, I really do. Calling it Staff Retention is supposed to focus the mind on the positive act of keeping people in your business, rather than thinking about it more negative terms. This may well however, have an adverse effect. Seeking to soften the mental impact of the huge costs involved when people leave an organisation blinds us to those impacts (in my opinion).

Staff Retention

People leaving a business is a huge cost in both financial and human terms. Most people leave their job because they don’t like their current one for a number of reasons – not least of which is because they don’t find that people are very nice to them. Their views aren’t heard, there’s nepotism, there’s no commitment to personal development or one of the most often-cited reasons, their immediate manager just isn’t very nice. As management guru Henry Mintzberg says in this interview, “If you want to find out someone’s flaws, either marry them or work for them.”

There’s a lot of discussion about “cultural fit” within organisations these days. I’d be interested in people’s ideas of what that actually means in practice. To me, it’s simply this – “Is the work what I want to be doing and are most people I encounter during the working day (including my boss) people that I like and/or respect?”

When you live in the age of Donald Trump’s allegedly authentic leadership, it might be hard to think that being nice could be a sought-after quality in leadership. Steve Jobs is often admired for his vision and determination, but he wasn’t a very nice person (allegedly). I have personally witnessed a number of managers in senior positions who just aren’t very nice to their teams and then wonder why their employee engagement scores are so low and people leave their business on a regular basis. I have witnessed one manager in particular whose ability to hold on to their staff was so poor that they churned through an entire team of about 8 people every calendar year. Of course, this was a massive waste of their time and energy – they were constantly having to recruit and train new members. There was also the loss of productivity whilst a work area was vacant, the pressure on others in the team to pick up the slack.


Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree & Strongly Disagree Scale

Which leads me on to another thing. I have seen and taken part in many staff surveys over the years. They measure many elements of employee engagement – you are asked to rate statements with a Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree or Strongly Disagree. Typical statements include the likes of “I have many opportunities to discuss my personal development with my line manager” or “Company XXX supports my ongoing learning and development”. What these surveys do is attempt to quantify how people are feeling about their employer and therefore how likely they might be to stay. They can be genuinely useful and insightful, but they could be improved greatly by asking some more challenging questions that get to the root of how people feel about those they work for.

People for the most part make decisions based on feelings and then justify them with logic later. Statements like “I feel valued by the organisation” or “I feel appropriately recognised for the work that I do by my line manager” would clearly enable an organisation to understand their employees’ feelings a lot better and manage them accordingly.

Now, clearly this could be treated by some employees as an opportunity to settle some score or other, and this is something to be considered. But two things occur to me here about that – a) Is that risk worth more than the pain and loss caused by people leaving the business? and b) if there is a score, how did that come about and wouldn’t it be worth knowing about it and understanding where it comes from rather than dismissing or avoiding it (as some managers tend to do)?

The good news, for those who need to define and quantify Being Nice in some way, is that you can learn some theory that might be helpful. Daniel Goleman and many others have done some great work around Emotional Intelligence, trying to define and categorize it. They’ve broken it down to such an extent that they can describe and teach the building blocks that make up Emotional Intelligence. The four elements are (simply put):-

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Management
  • Social Awareness
  • Relationship Management

Ultimately, is about being self-aware enough to know how you behave, how to regulate that behaviour, the knowledge of how that behaviour affects others and the ability to read that effect. So, you know, being nice.

Craig Newmark started Craigslist. In this interview, he is asked what a near-20-year career at IBM and Charles Shwab taught him. His reply is simple and telling – “I learned that my social skills – or lack thereof – really held me back professionally.”

So, if you’re struggling with high staff turnover, you might want to first of all call it what it is. It’s actually called “people leaving”. That might give you a bit more impetus to consider the ramifications once you remove the management double-think. Secondly, try being nice for a change. Go on, I dare you.

Toby Townrow is the Director of Toby Townrow Consulting (TTC), a management consultancy specialising in Organisational Development, Leadership and Management, Internal Communication and Learning and Development. For more about TTC’s services, go to www.tobytownrowtraining.co.uk

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