Management Skills: Be Nice

When I was a boy a family friend told me, “You get more flies with honey, kid.” I used to hear that saying a lot as a boy because my resting facial expression has always looked like an angry sour-puss. I can’t help it. Being nice is something I’ve had to work on.

Smiling was a good start for me. Even though I have a lousy fake smile, it turns out a fake smile is better than a scowl any day. It also turns out that making a habit out of smiling helps me to relax a little, and not be so damn uptight all the time.

Listening has also helped me be nicer. I’ve learned the hard way that no one cares what I have to say (and no one cares what you have to say either). I’ve read fancy books that give fancy advice for something called “active listening,” but it’s much simpler than that. Here’s what you do. Step one: look at the person, and let them start talking. Step two: don’t talk. Step two is the harder step because you will instinctively not care what the other person is saying and you will burn with the desire to talk because you will think what you have to say is infinitely more interesting than what they are saying and it would be an absolute tragedy to the human zeitgeist if your brilliant words went unspoken. Just don’t talk. No one cares.

In addition to just making people feel good for being listened to, listening has another advantage for being nice. Even though you won’t remember everything the person told you because a portion of your attention was directed to the act of trying to pay attention, you will gain some useful information by listening. You might hear something compliment-worthy, like maybe the person told you their child graduated with honors, and you can say, “Congratulations, you must be very proud.” Or you might hear that your interlocutor is in need, and you may be in a position to help. Giving compliments and doing favors are two great ways to be nice.

You may be thinking, “John, this is wonderful advice for that preschooler you have running around your house, but I’m a big important manager. What does this have to do with me?”

Well, I’ve learned more from bad managers than from good managers in my career. I’ve learned that managers with “people problems” get fired about one to three months after the people problem forest fire starts to smolder within their team. And once that fire starts, it’s nearly impossible to extinguish it any other way than to extinguish the manager. Managers with performance problems on the other hand can usually survive about one to two years or more, and sometimes performance issues can be easily reversed through coaching and support. So people problems tend to be irreversible and they can kill a management career about ten times faster than often easily-fixed performance problems.

Being nice matters. In my last post I stated that there’s really no such thing as a manager and an employee. There are only people. We’re supposed to be nice to people.