08/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nice Guy Syndrome: The Plight of the Corporate Martyr

Most of us know them. They are the well-liked co-workers who continuously put the job and their co-workers in front of their own needs. They fall on their swords to help others out, regardless of whether they will survive the 'battle' or sustain 'injury'. They do it in the name of friendship and loyalty to their companies. At first glance, they could be lauded as the "corporate hero"; however, all too often they end up as the "corporate martyr". Why? Because, in this guy's opinion, they are overly nice.

Real Case In Point - Eric was a brilliant technical architect who was participating on a proposal team for a huge deal. Prior to "The Big Presentation", he came up with a brilliant idea. He would print out a giant diagram of the system design, which could then be proudly displayed during the presentation and left as a prominent artifact for the prospect. To do so, Eric ran down to the local Kinko's to print out the drawing on their large format printer. Upon arriving, he found that the printer was broken. They recommended that he could drive 10 miles to the next Kinko's to use their functioning printer. Not Eric. As a self-admitted overly nice guy, he ended up working through the night at Kinko's to help them fix their printer. While he succeeded in repairing the printer, he was completely spent for the presentation the following morning and for several days thereafter. Corporate Martyr; yes or no?

Actions like Eric's are not uncommon in the business world, as workers aim to please their managers, co-workers, customers, suppliers and peers. However, when these efforts become so self-sacrificing, a real cost emerges as the overly nice guys kill themselves in the pursuit of making others happy. In Eric's case, it would have been more prudent of him to go to another Kinko's, print out the drawing, get a good night's sleep, and then participate in the presentation in a meaningful (and lucid) way. If he still felt it appropriate to lend a hand to Kinko's, he could do so after the presentation or on his own time.

Overly nice guys don't establish reasonable boundaries in this respect and it ends up hurting them as well as their organizations. In this regard, business managers should be on the watch for acts of corporate martyrdom. If overly nice guys demonstrate such over-the-top behavior, the boss can set guidelines to help protect against too much self-sacrifice. To aid in this effort, steps can be taken such as defining thresholds, which may be caused by corporate martyrdom. For example, in Eric's case, the team leader might define very specific boundaries regarding how intense the team members get when trying to "wow" clients. In professions that work in billable hours (like law), companies can impose limits to prevent workers from overextending themselves and burning out. Every company and its managers need to identify what types of boundaries need to be defined to help out the overly nice guys within their organization.

Overly nice guys represent a substantial percentage of the work force. In fact, 61% of the people surveyed for our book, "Nice Guys Can Get The Corner Office", indicated they are too nice at work. By implementing some important adjustments, you can help overly nice guys become effectively nice and convert from corporate martyrs to corporate heroes!