Being nice is a feature and a bug

[LinkedIn thread: https://bit.ly/3kzZqZN, Twitter thread: https://bit.ly/3osr4t3]

nice: … kind, pleasing, agreeable, ..

Merriam-Webster

Greying hair has meant helping people in my network – with careers, decisions, strategy, and sundry. One of the most common predicaments I see people face is in taking decisions that may displease someone. Why is this such a common pitfall? Why would so many of us carry a trait that seems so obviously disadvantageous? Some recent life experiences and reading have made me explore the reason. It’s also given me some clarity, I feel, on how we can approach these predicaments. Collating some thoughts here.

Common Predicaments at Work

I think my market salary is significantly above what I make. People are pinging me with significantly higher numbers. But I am feeling bad bringing this up with my manager.

I feel that Department X is not doing enough and the quality of their work sucks. But I don’t feel comfortable bringing this up.

Person Y is a pain to manage. He always has a good excuse for slipping up. Don’t know what to do.” (often followed by: “Can we transfer him/her to a different team?”)

My Company is failing, but I don’t have the heart to tell my investors that we need to recap the company, start all over again and that their investment is wiped out.

I would really like to argue for a higher valuation. But I don’t feel comfortable about it. After all, Investor Z was the first one to approach me and has been so helpful.

Over the last many years – I have found myself counseling many people with variants of these types of issues. The path ahead in each one of these is so obvious I would think. It’s just nerves and lack of experience perhaps. “Doing the right thing” was my favorite line going into these discussions – the Gita’s Karmanye Vadhikaraste .. no doubt being a potent influence.

Personal Predicaments

And yet – I was simultaneously realizing the limits of my own objectivity. I recently embarked on a new startup journey. I had learned, early in my previous one, that a founder had to wear many hats (Leader, Coach, Developer, Architect, Manager, Support, PM, … – you name it) – and I had become fairly adept at consciously donning one of these hats before approaching a specific situation. I had also picked up a fair number of skills across functions. This second iteration should be much easier I thought – I can do a whole bunch of stuff myself (initially)!

And yet, the earliest days, of solitude and working alone were gnawing. In ways that I cannot recount fully now. I was badly missing a team. The boundless (and sometimes irrational) optimism of an entrepreneur was hard to bear in the same head as the necessary cynicism of an analyst, the grind of a developer, and the process required of a PM.

Alcoholics Anonymous

I was also simultaneously reading the story of AA in Duhigg’s book:

Extraordinary. The most successful and largest habit-altering program in the world was driven by Social relationships. All of a sudden, my gnawing didn’t seem so illogical. This is who we are – a social animal! (damn it – didn’t they teach that in primary school?). Most of us are programmed to function in a group. Seen in this light, the common foibles in my network seemed easy to explain. Not a one-off weakness. Not inexperience. But a common trait, selected by evolution, making us care for the approval/feedback of the society on which we depend so utterly.

And even the act of making a product (and hence a startup) is inherently social after all. What good is building a product that is of no use to others?

Confused by Evolution?

Behavioral Economics and Psychology have been areas of interest for me. Works like Thinking Fast and Slow, Predictably Irrational, Mean Markets and Lizard Brains helped me understand how biologically programmed constructs influence our decisions and detract from objectivity. Our dealings with other people seem to fall into a similar pattern. Consider the following:

  • Social Dependence is fundamental to us. Whether its something as fundamental as raising a family, or earning a livelihood (stepping back all the way to when we hunted in groups).
  • Social Approval is an fundamental part of this dynamic. How can we work and live with a group and not be nice to its members ? Conversely, being nice will often pay off positively – the success of the Open-Source and other community driven movements is just the latest manifestation of this.
  • And yet, there are scenarios, where we must watch out for our personal self-interest over the approval and interest of the group.

The tension is more directly illustrated by a familiar scenario at work:

  • I must collaborate with my manager at work and seek their approval to make sure we are an effective and aligned team. If I help him/her, it helps us (and v.v.).
  • Yet, come compensation review time, I must negotiate with the same person (and sometimes raise a stink and even get a counter-offer if required).

Is it any surprise that many people struggle to behave so differently, that too with the same darned person! (And isn’t that exactly what I was experiencing as a solo founder? The near impossibility of donning so many contradictory hats concurrently ).

It is my conjecture thus – that we are confused by our evolutionary brain. That for most people – our lives are dominated by the symbiotic nature of social relationships. And that the occasional anti-patterns, where we must be selfish with respect to those same relationships, are difficult to handle objectively.

A Formula

Could a deeper understanding of the source of our confusion make it easy to articulate some simple rules for when to be nice? Perhaps. Some rules I can think of:

  • Be accomodative, compassionate in situations where one loses little and potentially gains (perhaps even a lot) in the future by virtue of making an emotional deposit in a relationship.
  • Be selfish on the other hand – where the loss to self of being nice is too high and irrecoverable by future possibilities.
  • Be selfish in zero-sum game scenarios where the counter-party does not have a personal stake, but is representing a larger entity. For example:
    • A manager negotiating compensation is usually representing the company and has no personal loss/gain from the outcome of the compensation negotiation.
    • OTOH, when we negotiate with a small business or a street vendor, often our gain is their personal loss. Kindness maybe in order in such situations.
  • Remember that sometimes being nice and overly accomodative can end up hurting the group itself. Managers often face this situation – where not holding people accountable – could sink the entire ship.

De-personalizing discussions

When being nice is not the right course of action – articulate clearly why. De-personalizing tough conversations at work is perhaps the most important trick to being able to have them in the first place.

It is also sometimes true though that while one person can take a tough discussion impersonally, the other can’t. These are some of the most tricky situations at work. How can one be objective if the other person isn’t? If objectivity destroys a relationship – is it worth it? Formulas break down here. We have to adjust our responses for the other person.

Skin in the Game

We have come to understand that decisions are best taken by those who have a stake in the outcomes. But an understanding of our social needs also reveals why sometimes those with no skin in the game are better placed to give objective advice.

An advisor or a mentor does not carry the burden of a relationship. They can, therefore, diagnose situations much more objectively sometimes. Of course, advice is just advice. The final call has to be made by the individual who has to maintain the relationship.

Social approval is Low Risk

In many circumstances, social approval is also a cheap form of “wisdom of the crowds”. By going along with what everyone else thinks – we also take lower risk paths. It is no wonder that evolution has selected this trait in most of us. And yet there are always some mavericks who buck this trend. And as Bernard Shaw said: “all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.

I often wondered why (and how) evolution carefully preserved the maverick trait in a small minority. At least one possible explanation seemed to make sense over the years: A maverick + extremely high intelligence / expertise makes for a potent combination. A person who is mostly right, can afford to ignore the crowd. (And v.v.: for the majority of us not as blessed, going against the crowd may lead to sub-optimal choices). And so the maverick trait never dies off entirely – sustained as it is by a minority of exceptional successes.

This line of thinking gives another mental map related to the concept of niceness. While in theory – one can be nice and be a maverick – but many nice people struggle to take an unorthodox stance. But those who are confident of their expertise in a specific domain can afford to be different and disagree (politely of course). Expertise is often acquired with experience – so individuals also need to evolve their behavior with time.

The Prelude

While I had been mulling over this topic for some time now, it was Twitter (what else!) that made me finally type this out:

These tweets were no doubt in the right spirit – that social collaboration (niceness) is usually our dominant mode. But there’s important nuance required here that was missing. And that is critical to striking the right balance between the self and the group. Thankfully some people pointed out the obvious – many of the most accomplished leaders in our generation weren’t always nice – and holding people accountable and pushing them to higher standards had at least something to do with their success:

Feedback?

I made a bunch of conjectures here. Everyone’s experiences on this topic are different. Would love feedback. Please leave comments below – or on LinkedIn thread at https://bit.ly/3kzZqZN or Twitter thread at: https://bit.ly/3osr4t3

4 thoughts on “Being nice is a feature and a bug

  1. I agree with your views on depersonalising decisions. In many ways, we lack the communication skills to be able to tell our side of the story – why we should get a raise, why we should shut down etc without being emotional. It’s not always hurting others we are worried about, but also our own selves and how to deal with our own feelings. There is a high deal of emotional maturity needed to convey our side of the picture to others. It’s much easier to put a facade of being nice and carry on, than to accept the truth enough to speak up

  2. To be truthful along with being courteous and caring lasts longer . Doesn’t matter if doing it puts someone in the nice category or not . We should focus on being nice rather than looking nice . In personal relations , even in tech / biz world , being upfront , being truthful will lay the cornerstone of long term trust . Finally in life , things / decision may be right or wrong but everyone gets to understand that whether the intentions of the next person were pure or mallicious .

    Even writing this blog shows that someone cares for the general well being of others , selflessly .

  3. Great read, Joydeep. This is something I have struggled with a lot in the past few years, and even I am using the tenet of “Doing what is right” in the decisions, even if it leads to uncomfortable conversations. The cost of being “too” nice is very high in the long run, especially when you are leading a group, and there are plenty of stakeholders who have to deal with the repercussions of the decisions one makes.

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