Can we be kind and successful in business?

Picture by: Brooke Cagle


In 2011,  Dr. Timothy A. Livingston and Charlie Hurst conducted a study titled, “Do Nice Guys-and Gals-Really Finish Last?“. The investigation focused mainly on participants ‘agreeableness’, using twenty years of data from three different surveys and gathering information from 10,000 workers who varied in age, earnings, and professions. 

The results deduced that those who scored lower on agreeableness earned approximately 18% more than nicer guys, concluding that nice guys are getting the shaft in the workplace. 

This investigation intrigued me. The world of business is often described as a shark world, with many believing to get where you want in your career, you have to be ruthless. I thought back to people I’ve previously worked with who were high up in the company, and I remember many of them being obnoxious and arrogant. This made me wonder, do nice guys really finish last? 

In my opinion, I don’t think you do. As I looked at the results of Livingston and Hurst’s study, I thought that it had an old fashioned approach. Being a jerk to succeed may have worked ten years ago, but I feel times have changed. I think now more than ever, it’s important to be kind in the workplace, and in this article, I’m going to explain how being kind will get you further in your career than being ruthless.

Why being kind is good for companies

1. Being kind retains employees and attracts new talent 

Jeannie Trudel of Indiana Wesleyan University, and Thomas Reio of Florida international University, showed that there is a link between incivility and turnover. 

Managing with an iron fist might produce results initially, but this method won’t work for long. If a manager or member of staff treats their colleagues badly, the company’s turnover will inevitably increase, around 12% according to Christine Porath, Ph.D., researcher, and professor at Georgetown University.  

And if a company’s turnover increases, they can gain a bad reputation. With social media and technology making it incredibly easy to share information, a good reputation is essential for companies trying to attract new talent in today’s job market.  

When I was a campus manager, it was important that our company received the “happy trainee” award, a scheme where interns judge a company based on their support, management style, and overall working environment. I found it no coincidence that my company, along with many others, wanted to win the ‘Happy Trainee Award’. When applying for a new role, a positive atmosphere and friendly work culture are some of the key criteria that candidates look for. How many potential employees go to Glassdoor before applying or accepting an offer? How many candidates contact employees on Linkedin to ask about the atmosphere? If a company has a backlog of negative reviews or testimonials left by previous employees, it’s likely that the position will receive much fewer applicants. 

2. Being kind increases productivity 

Civility and respect play an important part in a company’s performance. 

Christine Porath, Ph.D. shared the example of Douglas Conant, who became CEO of Campbell’s Soup Company in 2001. Before Douglas had been appointed, the company’s market share had dropped by half. This meant that sales were decreasing and many people had been laid off. On Douglas’s first day, he was transparent with the employees at Campbell’s Soup. He told them that he had high expectations about their performance, but that he wanted them to meet these expectations with civility and respect. And this kind and compassionate approach paid off because, over the next nine years, Campbell’s Soup set unprecedented records and received many prestigious awards, including the famous ‘Best Place to Work’ award

Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist and psychotherapist, also speaks about the link between kindness and productivity. 

People who maintain positive moods and attitudes perform more effectively in the workplace. They create greater profitability, customer satisfaction, and peer-rated performance. An atmosphere of rudeness and disrespect undermines success”.

In fact, there’s evidence that the “more people feel devalued at work, whether by peers or management practices, the less energy goes into creating value and contributing to the product or service. Top performers recognize such negatives, and that often leads to their leaving the organization

Christine Porath further expands on the correlation between kindness and productivity in her study.

Porath conducted an experiment where she asked former business students to describe a time when they were treated in a rude or disrespectful way in the workplace and to explain how they reacted. 

Some participants described receiving comments on their work such as “It’s kindergarten work”, with another describing a time where a colleague tore up someone’s project in front of their whole team. 

At the end of her survey, Porath concluded:

  • 47% of participants who were treated poorly decreased their time at work
  • 38% said they intentionally decreased the quality of their work
  • 66% admitted their performance declined 
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined 
  • 80% spent their time at work worrying about previous incidents 
  • 63% actively avoided their offender

These figures reveal that working in an environment that promotes incivility and aggressiveness can greatly affect employees’ motivation, performance, and engagement. This happens not only when you are subjected to incivility, but also when you witness it. 

According to Christine Porath, aggressive management styles can also affect employees’ attention. 

3. Kindness improves collaboration and contribution

Researchers in Israel have shown that “medical teams exposed to rudeness perform worse, not only in their diagnostics but also in all the procedures they completed. Why? Mainly because medical teams subjected to rudeness did not share information as readily, and stopped seeking help from their teammates.”  Christine Porath affirmed, “this observation is not only related to the medical field but in all industries.” 

Now that we know rudeness negatively impacts the performance of a team, what key components do you need to create a successful team? I love asking questions, I feel like a game show presenter about to give the answer to the final question. And the answer is… not being mean! 

In 2012, Google conducted a survey called Project Aristotle, where they investigated what factors made an effective team. They studied more than 180 teams and analyzed many factors; such as age, hobbies, and educational background, but this data didn’t result in a strong pattern. Therefore, as they continued their research, they decided to move their focus to “group norms”. 

Norms are traditions, behavioral patterns, and unwritten rules that dictate how groups of humans interact when together. By focusing on this,  the study concluded two key ingredients that the best teams share:

Number one, everyone gets a chance to speak, express their feelings, or share their opinions. “As long as everyone had a chance to talk, the team did well. However, if only one person or a small group spoke throughout the session, the collective group performance declined”

Number two, teams that performed well had high “average social sensitivity”. This meant that members of these groups were more empathetic towards each other. “They were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, expressions, and other nonverbal cues.” 

This means that teams who have a  kind, trusting, and respectful work atmosphere, where they feel free to contribute without fear of being judged, are much more likely to produce better results. 

But beyond the company and the team, is being nice a good strategy as an individual? 

Why is being kind important as an individual? 

Being kind is a good long term strategy 

It’s clear that a company being kind to their employees has many advantages, with a positive work culture attracting talent, producing better results and increasing the productivity of staff. However, being kind also has many advantages as an individual too.

As an employee

Kindness can sometimes wrongly be associated with weakness. However, kindness is an asset in the business world, colleagues will be more inclined to help you, your manager is more likely to value you and your customers will recommend you. 

Christine Porath conducted a study at a biotechnology company, where she found that “those who were perceived as civilized were twice as likely to be seen as leaders, and worked much better. Why? Because people see you as a powerful combination of warmth and competence, friendly and smart.” If you are kind, it’s more likely that those around you will perceive you as a leader. Not only this, but you will work better, be seen as a welcoming person and valued as a competent member of staff. Not bad right? 

As a leader

According to Christine Porath, civility has a direct correlation with leadership, helping us answer the question: what do people expect most from their leaders? 

Porath conducted a study where she asked more than 20,000 employees worldwide what they expected from their leader. The results simply concluded that: Employees expect respect from their managers. 

Being treated with respect was deemed one of the most important managerial attributes of employees. Those who feel respected are more focused, have a higher probability of staying in their organization, and are more likely to be involved in work discussions and tasks. 

So if you’re a manager that’s looking for engagement from your team, you know what you have to do! Respect! 

It’s also been shown that acting in an aggressive or unfriendly manner towards your team will directly affect their results. 

Christine Porath shares research results conducted by Morgan McCall and Michael Lombardo. They concluded that the main reason for the failure of a manager or executive was an “insensitive, abrasive, or bullying management style”. 

Of course, and I’m sure many of us have witnessed it, that there can be unfortunate expectations where people that have gotten far in their career despite being malicious and aggressive.

But “sooner or later, most uncivil people sabotage their success”. The tables can turn very quickly in business and there will come a time where those who treat people badly will need something. This is often when they will see the error in their ways, as they will not receive any support. Remember “ Being unkind is like a boomerang, it always returns to the sender.”

Thus, being kind will lead down the road to success. Many successful people today embody assertiveness, self-assurance; but also a positive attitude and the ability to collaborate. 

Candidates showing team spirit are even more likely to be hired by potential employers. 

However, it’s important to know the difference between being kind and respectful and letting others take advantage of your generosity. 

How to be kind without being a people-pleaser? 

Being kind can be a great strength and will not only benefit you but also those around you. However, being too kind may result in being overworked and underappreciated, which can lead to damaging problems such as burnout. This is why it’s important to know and respect your own boundaries and understand when to say no. 

Mark Bolino, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, talks about the phenomenon of “exacerbated citizenship” that can be burdensome of the kindest employees. 

In a large majority of cases, up to 35% of tasks with “added value are only assigned to 3% to 5% of employees. The more a member of staff is considered to be capable and willing to help, the more they are called upon to complete important projects or tasks.”

Even though this can often be a positive thing, employees who are always willing to accept new tasks can quickly become overworked, resulting in a lack of motivation and increased negative feelings such as stress and worry. Therefore, it’s important to strike balance with being kind and taking on too much work. 

Being nice doesn’t always have to mean being a people pleaser either. Christine Porath states you can be kind and still have strong opinions, disagree, and give negative feedback.

You can be kind and offer to help others as long as it doesn’t impact your work and well-being. If a colleague constantly asks you for help, and you have the feeling that they might be taking advantage of your kindness, it’s okay to say no. 

Saying no doesn’t make you a selfish person, but rather someone who listens and respects their limits. By respecting yourself, you will in turn be respected. The boundary between kindness and people-pleasing lies in listening to oneself. 

No one’s perfect. Looking back, I know I should have said “no” more often than I did. 

Kindness isn’t a sign of being a pushover, it shows that you want to support and inspire others. Always listen to your feelings, know your limits, and ensure that your kindness is respected and not taken advantage of. If you are a manager, being kind is a proven way to motivate your team. It shows you’re willing to help, encourage and support your employees, inspiring them to achieve their goals and ultimately leading your team to success. 


In the introduction to this article, I told you that I had seen very unkind people be very successful in business. However, I have also met many people who are kind, welcoming, and empathetic, go on to successfully motivate their employees, meet their targets, and climb the career ladder, all while creating a great working environment. They weren’t viewed as a pushover. They were respected by those around them and valued by their ability not to compromise their civility, even when having to act firmly. 

At this moment, we are experiencing a shift in the job market of today, primarily driven by Millenials.  Kindness, respect, and emotional intelligence are now viewed as serious assets needed to succeed in your career, provided that you don’t fall into the “people pleaser syndrome”. 

So, do we have to be ruthless to earn the respect of others? Do nice guys really finish last? I shared my opinion with you from the start, but I hope that this article has helped convince you that you can be kind and succeed in the world of business. 

As Christine Porath says : “incivility chips away at people and their performance. It robs them of their potential.” Working in a relaxed and positive atmosphere means that employees are more productive, happy, and healthy. 

You may have read this article because you were concerned that your kindness could stand in the way of your success, but trust me when I tell you it won’t be. Your kindness is noble and a great asset to you. Be proud of your kind nature, continue to spread positivity and you will receive the same treatment from those around you.

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