Friday, June 12, 2009

Be Nice

Your attitude is one of the most powerful tools in your professional arsenal. How you choose to interact with people will ultimately govern how well you can do your job. And there are two things you control there: the circle of people with whom you interact, and how you talk (write, etc) to them.

I don't care how good you are at programming, finding bugs, whatever. If you're rude, or if you speak poorly to people who don't understand your... quirks.... you will wind up being shunted to the side. No one wants to work with someone who makes them feel beat down all the time, or someone who they simply can't understand, or someone whose reaction to every issue is to start wailing about the end of the world.

There are two circles you work with. First there are those who you work with constantly and who understand that when you say, "what moron would check in something like that?!", you really mean, "there might be an issue in this code" and further that there's a good chance the moron was you. You can let your hair down around this group a bit. There's still a line, but it's further away.

Then there's the circle of people who you work with less often. This group isn't exposed to you every day and doesn't necessarily appreciate that your passionate attack is about the work rather than the person.

So what's the secret? Easy. Figure out your circle, and then:

Be nice.

Be relentlessly nice.

It's a high bar to cross. You have to be informed. You have to be able to consider ideas quickly and effectively. You have to be able to translate concepts into language sales, marketing, and development can all understand. You really do have to be good..... and you have to be nice.

You'll feel provoked sometimes (not everyone is as good as you are about considering their coworkers); be nice and refuse to engage. You'll be frustrated sometimes; be nice. In the end you'll get pretty good at it. (Good sales guys, by the way, are amazing at this in front of clients.)

Being very good at what you do makes you just that: very good. Being very good and being nice: that makes you great.

UPDATE 2009-06-16: It occurred to me that I failed to define "nice", so I posted an update attempting to clarify my thoughts.


  1. Hello Catherine,
    Hello Catherine,
    As frequent reader I enjoy your postings and often can identify with your writings, until this moment.
    I don't agree that being nice is the perfect word. As far as I know you can only be nice if the person accepts your behavior as nice. This might take some time as being nice you come in situations you cannot tell immediately what you are meaning. Sometimes you face people who you might be hard to force solutions, decisions and progress.

    I prefer the word respect. With this word you are acting from out your role in the team. It leaves your space how you are going to tell bad news or make people move.

    with regards,

  2. Respect is absolutely important.

    When I first wrote this, I used the word "considerate", but I changed it because I wanted a more active word. "Nice" was the best one I could come up with; to me at least it has connotations of actively pleasant... even in the face of something (or someone!) unpleasant.

    Words are very imprecise, though, aren't they? :)

  3. I think I understand what you are trying to say, with a positive attitude you will gain more facing people when you have to bring "bad" news. Still I'm struggling with the word nice. I see people acting nice and don't reach their goals; they are wasting too much time. Sometimes it is better to take the time as it will pay back later on.

    For now I cannot come up with a better word other then respect, sincere and friendly. Only these words don't cover the attitude when approaching someone.

    Perhaps it is nice in a certain context; something like: treat people as you would like people treat you.

    Just noticed that there is just a small difference between the words threat and treat although the meaning is very different.

  4. This is spot on!

    I remember a quote from Ray Charles, when talking about fame: "I never wanted to be famous, I just wanted to be great." It's the same basic premise: if what you want is to be the top of your craft, you won't get there by chasing some other goal (including that of smartest guy in the room.)

    Also, the No Asshole Rule:

  5. i'd rather work with honest, blunt, tactless, etc. people that nice ones. i already get enough of people telling me what i want to hear in my personal life and don't need it in my professional life.

  6. I presume you've read Dale Carnegie's "How To Make Friends And Influence People"?

    I was once one of those arrogant, patronising developers. After reading that (well, I listened to the audiobook) I became a new man. I have a pice of paper with 'What Would Lincoln Do?' attached below my monitor, and I refer to it every time I'm about to tear a strip out of someone in QA for asking what I would perceive to be an idiotic question.

    My only regret is that I wasn't as pleasant as I am now sooner - the amount of friends and potential business contacts I must have lost forever because of my attitude and temper...

  7. The bluntness of the Dutch is quite famous in Europe. People in other countries sometimes mistake bluntness for rudeness, but most of the times it's better to be blunt than it is to be nice. It speeds things up.

    Also, if you have to hide your emotions there's always the change of a dam breaking.

    Don't sugarcoat everything, you'll feel better.

  8. I would also like to add a note of my own: stop the swearing. When working with "those you work with constantly" at 2 a.m. to find a solution, it is common for the language to get a bit colorful. But this should be the exception to the rule. Refrain from using colorful language that would be inappropriate in front of a class of first-graders.

  9. Awesome article. Some of the hang-up seems to be around an interpretation of "nice". I see "nice" as respectful, honest, and pleasant. Being nice is not sugarcoating problems or ignoring emotions but finding a constructive, respectful way to interact with your co-workers, clients, etc.. There are plenty of ways to confront someone on a problem or express frustration without being abusive or unpleasant.

  10. addresses the issue of being nice in a great way. Check out their "Nice Movement".

  11. I find hypocrazy difficult to tollerate. Being nice when the situation doesn't call for it drives me batty. Example; the lady at the returns counter of a major retailer said "Good to see you again!", yet I had never seen her before and I was there because of a problem with a product they sold me. A simple, and correct 'How may I help you?" would have been more appropriate and timely.

  12. I like being nice with every one

  13. Well I like to think of it as being professional, and respectful. There is room for this now and more than ever I beleive. Marisa b (

  14. "Nice" post! ;-)

    I agree with one of the Anonymous people when he/she said that some of the debate here is over the connotation of the word, "nice." Some people think of it as being "insincere" in order not to hurt someone's feelings. It's important to be honest, but in a respectful way. I think part of the problem comes when people take a criticism personally or when the criticism is made in such a way that it seems like a personal attack. For example, criticizing the person that made the mistake (especially by referring to them as a moron!) is bound to make the poor moron defensive. It would be better to just address the problem without spending time blaming the moron.

    In any case, I agree completely that attitude and the way we treat one another can make a huge difference in how well a team operates.

  15. The "No Asshole Rule" by Robert Sutton is a good example of being nice. The way I read your post is not be nice but don't be an asshole so that you don't break down the nice environment.