THE BLOG
03/26/2009 08:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Should I Care About the Nice Guys When the SOB's Have Screwed Up the Economy?

Enron, MCI, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers and so many others... all of these organizations started with ideals and somehow, corruption and/or deceit infiltrated their walls and now they are all fallen giants of a bygone era. The media and judiciary have rightfully gone after the corrupt leadership and pinned responsibility on these misguided characters. These "leaders" developed self-interests that have somehow overshadowed their fiduciary and ethical responsibilities. They ultimately made their organizations all about themselves, rather than the stockholders, employees and customers.

So, we know what some of the SOB's have done, but what of the nice guy or more accurately, the "overly nice guy" who sticks his head in the sand to avoid creating waves even when he or she sees their organizations heading off track or worse? These "Business Ostriches", who defer confrontation at almost any cost? Those well-meaning nice guys who are more concerned about pleasing others than timely and meaningful resolution. Should the overly nice guy (man or woman) be held accountable for in effect doing nothing? Should 'sins of omission' carry the same consequences?

Well, we believe the answer is a resounding "No," they shouldn't be held accountable for divisive and illegal behavior that they didn't commit. The question that lingers, though, is did their overly nice guy aversions potentially impact the outcome of these fallen giants? Quite possibly.

By learning how to speak up, confront situations and make choices, overly nice guys can help break the downward slide in this economy. And even if we didn't have an economic crisis, this guidance can have a profound impact on both the organization's and the overly nice guy's success. Interestingly, nearly 2/3 of the people we interviewed for our book, "Nice Guys Can Get the Corner Office", described themselves as overly nice. And while they all agreed that nice is good, overly nice was a liability. In fact, the goal should be to find a balance between overly nice and overly assertive. These changes must come from the top down and from the bottom up. By dealing with Nice Guy Syndrome, everyone stands to benefit.

In writing the book, we met with 25 CEO's from companies such as Southwest Airlines, Proctor and Gamble, Cirque du Soleil, Ernst & Young, their message was clear; businesses are off their game if they do not employ strategies to help out their overly nice guys. Furthermore, their underlying message for the overly nice guys; a vital segment of all of their businesses, was to have the courageous and honest discussions right up front. Jeff Miller, founder of Monster.com, said it well: "In the absence of having a candid discussion -- which at times may be painful -- you simply cannot obtain clarity on the expected outcome."

Challenges with candor can positively impact the overly nice guys' careers and your business. If overly nice guys feel the corporate environment is not conducive to speaking up, they will keep their heads buried in the sand. Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, has strong feelings about the issue: "Creating an atmosphere in which people feel comfortable speaking their minds without running the risk of offending people is enormously important." If the overly nice guys feel uncomfortable in expressing themselves, their true capacity remains untapped. And, an enormous safety net for undesirable behavior never materializes.

Sam DiPiazza, CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers, shares "Business -- whether we like it or not -- includes competition. It is challenging, aggressive, and very demanding. And despite the perception of many, it can also be performed nicely." DiPiazza's emphasis on conducting business in a competitive way while remaining nice was echoed by all of the CEOs interviewed for our book; including Dr. John Seffrin, CEO of American Cancer Society, which is of course a non-profit organization.

For most overly nice guys, this is simply not a matter of "toughening up". It takes forethought for both the overly nice guys and their managers as they learn to be more assertive. Jon Luther, CEO of Dunkin Brands (Dunkin Donuts), states "Nice guys must stretch outside of their comfort zones." And as we share in the book, they can be taught to stretch by taking smaller and manageable incremental steps.

However, it will be important that your corporate culture supports such endeavors without painful repercussions for the nice guys (men and women) out there.

Cheers,
Russ