Business: why niceness is priceless

Originally featured on NatWest Content Live


Being positive, fair-minded and altruistic in business isn’t just good for your soul – it also makes sound commercial sense.

‘Nice guys finish last’ is one of the most stubborn clichés in business and, according to an increasingly large body of research, one of the least accurate. Indeed, the value of trust, empathy and altruism in running a successful enterprise has become a mainstream topic in management schools worldwide.

Most recently, psychologists at Goldsmiths, University of London, explored the relationship between ‘niceness’ and levels of health, happiness and success. The study, commissioned by Monarch Airlines, suggested people who identified themselves as nice earned an average of £3,500 per year more than those who didn’t, and were better able to deal with stress.

“We were approached because we’ve done a lot of work on what psychologically determines well-being,” says Professor Jonathan Freeman from Goldsmiths. “So we did this research and found that people who say they’re nice also report being happier, healthier, more successful, and having more money.”

A focus of the research was to discover what niceness actually means. “Agreeableness was one key component,” says Freeman. “Empathy was another one we measured, and altruism. We looked at the statistical relationship between being nice and all these psychological variables, and we found the nicer people said they were, the higher they scored.

“In terms of how it applies in business, my take on it is based around emotional intelligence (EI). Lots of other researchers have found a link between EI and income.”

So what is emotional intelligence? Lesley Giles, director of the Work Foundation at Lancaster University Management School, says: “It’s an ability to use your empathy to understand your own emotions and how they’re affected by certain events, and also to tune in to the emotions of others. By having the ability to do that, you’re better able to manage people and relationships. It’s an awareness that then has a tactical application in terms of how you work with people.”

Trailblazers

A good example of the ‘power of nice’ is provided by Rowlinson, an 81-year-old family company that produces schoolwear and corporate clothing. Based in Stockport, Greater Manchester, it employs 45 people in the UK and maintains a partnership with textiles factories in Egypt and Bangladesh. Marketing manager Caroline Hamer says: “We weren’t so successful until we decided we needed to change the way we thought about everything and focus on the customer and employee before profits.”

“People who work here, day in and day out, should be rewarded for establishing and maintaining a successful business”

Caroline Hamer, Rowlinson

It’s an ethos that goes far beyond the usual norms of corporate social responsibility, and one that permeates all of Rowlinson’s operations. Within the organisation, it means looking after staff. The firm has been awarded the Workplace Wellbeing Charter and the Investors in People Gold Award, and since 2015 it’s been 60% owned by its employees.

“We wanted to secure the business and ensure it could never be sold,” says Hamer. “People who work here, day in and day out, should be rewarded for establishing and maintaining a successful business. It gives everyone a voice, increasing employee engagement and sharing the profits.”

Beyond this, Rowlinson ensures its customers and overseas staff are treated with dignity and respect, with teams in Asia being overseen by Rowlinson-trained quality controllers. “It’s partly to ensure our quality remains high, but more because we want to make certain the people producing the products are happy and healthy.”

On the right page

In 2010, Mira Katbamna co-founded the publishing company YBM, with a mission to produce “intelligent content for sophisticated audiences”. It’s since won contracts to produce magazines for the likes of the University of Cambridge, LexisNexis, University College London and the University of Bath. Katbamna believes positivity in business dealings has been crucial to YBM’s success.

“Nice is about more than just being pleasant,” she says. “Living your values is challenging, and we don’t always get it right. But paying your suppliers as swiftly as possible, being open and transparent in your pricing, taking responsibility and allowing the team to take responsibility without being blamed – to me, this is all part and parcel of ‘nice’. It’s more complex than sending a smiley face at the end of your email.”

Katbamna says acting in bad faith would be counterproductive in the small world of magazine publishing. “The version of business being pushed in The Apprentice is nonsense,” she says. “If you behaved like that in real life, you’d soon be in liquidation.

“I work with a lot of people I know personally and count as friends, so it’s impossible to divorce how I behave in my professional life from the person I am. And along the same lines, we want the company to behave in the world in the same way that we do as individuals.”

YBM’s business model would chime with Freeman’s view. He says: “There’s a myth that if you carry the dark triad of narcissism, neuroticism and psychopathy, you’ll get to the top by treading on everyone else. I’m sure there are cases where people with those characteristics have thrived, but it doesn’t make a healthy work environment. Emotional intelligence leads to better business functioning and teamwork, and more effective interaction with your customers because you understand what they need.”

It’s all evidence, perhaps, that ‘nice guys finish last’ should give way to a more positive mantra: niceness is priceless.

Five maxims to consider

  1. It’s futile for a business to present itself as kind and caring in its external dealings if there’s a culture of meanness in the workplace. A poisonous atmosphere always leaks out.
  2. Don’t reserve your courtesy for people who seem likely to be useful to you. Today’s intern may be tomorrow’s CEO.
  3. Nastiness may be paid back promptly (and with interest) but kindness rarely brings immediate dividends. The rewards may take years to become apparent.
  4. You can’t fake niceness. Clients, partners and employees will pick up on any deception.
  5. Being ‘too nice’ – letting problems fester for the sake of a quiet life – can be as damaging to a business as ruthlessness.

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