“Can you train ‘nice’?” asked S. Chris Edmonds in a recent article for TrainingIndustry.com. His answer was “yes,” and he explained that doing so will help create “a purposeful, positive, productive work experience.”
When “niceness” is cultivated and rewarded in an organization, employees feel safe to ask for help and receive it. Managers support their employees’ development, and every employee, from the intern to the CEO, brings his or her authentic self to work and performs better as a result. In fact, half of employees “value a community atmosphere in the place where they work.”
“Nice guys [and girls] finish last,” the old saying goes. But the evidence shows that if that adage was ever true, it isn’t now. Psychologist Adam Grant’s research on reciprocity, described in his 2013 book “Give and Take,” found that givers – the people who like to give more than they receive – are the highest-performing employees. That’s because, Grant wrote in Harvard Business Review, “a willingness to help others achieve their goals lies at the heart of effective collaboration, innovation, quality improvement, and service excellence.”
However, Grant continues, many organizations – consciously or unconsciously – incentivize a “taker” culture. At such organizations, employees may feel that reward systems are “zero-sum: In promotion decisions, only one person advances, while the rest are left behind. In forced-ranking performance evaluations, for every employee who earns a five, another must be given a one. In competitive bonus pools, more money to start means less for the rest.”
Fran Hauser, a startup advisor, former president of digital at Time Inc. and author of “The Myth of the Nice Girl,” says that zero-sum or “scarcity mindset” is a symptom of a larger problem: the undervaluing of kindness and the belief that strong, confident leaders cannot also be “nice.” She believes that organizations have a responsibility to cultivate kindness and generosity in the workplace. “I think – actually, I know – it’s good for the bottom line.”
There’s another, related myth active in the workplace that impedes success, according to Larry Freed, CEO of Give and Take, Inc., the company founded by Grant, sociologist Wayne Baker and social capital innovator Cheryl Baker. That myth is the belief that “we should always go to our boss only with a solution, not a problem,” and it “flies in the face of everything we should be doing. Our bosses are there to help us.”
So are our co-workers. That’s why Give and Take launched Givitas, a knowledge collaboration platform based on the concepts of giving and reciprocity. The goal was to create a scalable, enterprise-ready platform that eliminates the stigma of asking for help and encourages employees to ask and answer questions of each other.
A recent article by Tenelle Porter, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, explored the concept of intellectual humility – “recognizing the limits of [one’s] knowledge and valuing the insight of someone else.” She and her colleagues found in their research in both a high school and in a laboratory setting that intellectual humility is associated with better learning outcomes. By creating a safe environment to ask for help, and encouraging employees at every level to do so, organizations can help foster intellectual humility and, perhaps, boost both learning and performance.
McKinsey research has found that “interaction workers” (“managers, professionals, sales people, and others whose work requires frequent interpersonal interactions, independent judgment, and access to knowledge”) spent 19 percent of their time at work finding information. Freed points out that many people at large companies react to this data by saying, “Really? Only 19 percent?” Helping people find the information they need faster is an important goal for organizations. Combining that goal with nurturing a more collaborative, generous and nice culture is a win-win.
The first step, says Hauser, is to set expectations. Her practice, for example, when leading project teams was to start by letting team members know that she expected them to help each other. She modeled that behavior herself as a leader. Then, she rewarded it in others by, for example, sending an email to the CEO and copying the team to let him know not just that they were meeting their goals but how they were meeting their goals – by working collaboratively and helpfully. This culture will benefit everybody, especially women, whom Hauser (and research) says are often the victims of the “nice guys finish last” myth.
“The power of asking for help,” says Freed, “is phenomenal.” As learning and development professionals, we know that collaborative learning is an effective method. But now, we can also see that the benefits of encouraging collaboration and helping behaviors have a multiplicative effect by creating a culture that is helpful, that impacts bottom-line results … and that’s just nice.