It's Time to Retire the Idea That Nice People Finish Last

I recently updated my resume headline to include "Nice Guy." I'm no longer just a Content Marketing Leader and Digital Strategist, I'm also a Nice Guy. Is saying you're a "Nice Guy" like giving yourself your own nickname? Maybe. But I'm going to do it anyway, and if you have a problem with this characterization, I'll refer you to my wife, Mom and mother-in-law, who have all told me I'm a Nice Guy just this week (thanks, ladies).

OK, so why am I telling you this? I added the "Nice Guy" qualifier because I think it's just as, if not more, important than any other qualities I bring to the table. It's one thing to say that, but quite another to believe it - and I do.

I make the case that being someone other people enjoy working with is the single most important thing you can offer to any organization, and that includes skill set and competency. Obviously, these things are important, but they are also implied. They are the foundational things you must be able to do, at the bare minimum, to keep a job, and there's a big difference between simply keeping a job and being exceptional.

Being friendly, polite, good-natured and likable? These things transcend performance, and are what make certain employees irreplaceable. As an example, look no further than Travis Bradberry's study on the 10 Ways to Spot a Truly Exceptional Employee - every item on the list is a function of emotional intelligence, not tactical skill.

It reminds me of another problematic question I've heard from aspiring leaders over the years: "Does being nice actually matter?" I wanted to write this post to remind all the nice people out there that the answer is absolutely "Yes," even if it does not feel that way right at this moment. I've heard too many times throughout my career and life that "nice people finish last." And that gets me fired up, because I think it's not only false, but also such a destructive phrase for us to hear and believe.

It's time to make a decision to change the outdated, tired and just plain wrong idea that being nice is somehow secondary to other qualities. Instead, let's make it the quality that matters most. Here are just a few reasons why:

"Finishing" Implies One Big Competition

I've written on this concept at length in past posts. Why does everything need to be a competition? The way I see it, where you "finish" is all about how you show up during the journey.

Yes, we've all known the executives and public figures who were essentially terrible people, but who had accrued great power and wealth. When I look at these people, my first question is, "Are they happy?" The answer, it would appear, is almost always "No" (although that's just based on my personal assessment). Even if they are, it's dangerous to look at these examples, as we often do, and think "Is that what it takes to reach that level?" 

Instead, we need a shift in perception in how we view those "ultra-successful" people that we're apparently supposed to aspire to be. In most cases, they did not "succeed" because they were terrible people, they "succeeded" in spite of it. To resist the temptation to compare our situations with theirs, it can help to ask ourselves what we want to be known for.

What Do You Want to Be Known For?

I love this question because it has the potential to stop us in our tracks. It's frighteningly easy to get tunnel vision in your job, and to begin to believe that your performance or prestige in that particular role is what defines you. Take a moment, and think about what you would want people to say about you when you're gone (whether from a position, an organization or even gone for good (dead)).

In my case, I want people to say that they miss me, and mean it. I want them to miss my empathy, good humor and commitment to doing the right thing. At the end of the day, the other, more tactical contributions will fade from memory over time. In other words, you can replace performance, but you can’t replace a person that other people just really liked working with and, in life, being with. 

Being "Too Nice" Is Not a Thing

I'll end by saying that, the one thing I hear most when I talk with people about how this plays into career growth, is that they're worried about being "too nice" in the work environment. They are concerned they will be pegged as a shrinking violet, and that they will be summarily steamrolled by people with stronger personalities who aren't as worried about being nice. This fear is based on real conversations with companies and spokespeople that, either directly or through implication, show current employees and candidates that "they don't want nice people, they want grinders who will drive change and won't take no for an answer."

Being nice and being firm in your convictions are not mutually exclusive concepts. Any company that holds that belief is probably not a company you want to work for.

You can do both and be both, and in my opinion, that combination alone makes you an extremely valuable employee, and in life, the most valuable type of person to know. That's something to be proud of, and something to be known for, regardless of where you are sitting today.

In that regard, then, those nice people who have the confidence and strength of conviction in all that they do? They have likely lived and worked with integrity, are defined by the impact they have had on others (not "performance") and are deeply missed when they're gone. Maybe they won't "finish first" (because everything isn't a race), but they will certainly finish strong.