They say that in business you meet the same people on the way up as you do on the way down. In reality professional relationships are far more complicated than this but it is still true that one of the best pieces of professional or personal advice I have ever had is quite simply, “be nice”.

A Simple Request with Great Power

One reason I value this advice is that it has resonated with me in some way almost every time it has been imparted. It may seem like a trite and facile philosophy when condensed down to the sort of thing you might tell a small child but it is precisely that simplicity that gives it such power. Many years ago, when entering a bar in Newcastle Upon-Tyne called “World Headquarters” I was greeted by a very large, bold and deliberately unmissable piece of graffiti near the entrance at the top of the stairs. I can’t remember the exact wording but it was something along the lines of “Be nice to each other, don’t be a d***”. The simplicity of this request was brilliant. It basically said “Follow these simple instructions and we’ll all have a good time”, and it worked, it was the most convivial Match-Day experience you could hope for.

Over the following years I started to hear this piece of advice being offered time and time again. Often by tutors, lecturers and coaches. At a lecture on “How to Succeed in the Music Business”, the speaker finished with “most importantly, be a nice person, nobody wants to work with idiots if they can avoid them”. On a management training course, the fact that gaining the respect and support of your contemporaries is more far effective than trying to impress the senior management, amounted to the same thing. At numerous other seminars, away days and team building exercises, being sure not to underestimate the immense power of praise came up time and time again.

Being Nice for Self-preservation

As admirable as the notion might be, this isn’t just about doing the right thing to satisfy some moral code; being a nice person throughout your personal and professional life can actually be an act of self-preservation in the long run. In the business world, the sharks might be considered to be at the top of the food chain, but a wounded predator can easily become a victim of indifference if not revenge. How many times have you seen the mighty fall, only to realise how few friends they made on their way to the top? I’ve certainly witnessed the flag waving and sense of Schadenfreude that can emerge when an unpopular company director suddenly finds they have just run out of luck.

A First-hand Account

Conversely, I have experienced first-hand the benefits of working a bit harder on more difficult professional relationships, where others wouldn’t have the patience:

One particular individual in middle management had an uncanny knack of rubbing the senior management and company directors up the wrong way by being openly critical. Because of her position in the company people tended to ignore her rather than accept her criticism.  The problem was that this person was often right, and so I tried a bit harder than some of my colleagues to appreciate the fact that any remarks were all well-intentioned, even if their delivery wasn’t exactly tactful. The result of this is that essentially by “being nice” I gained the respect of this person. After a couple of years I moved on to a new job with a new company. On my first day I was told that my reference had been excellent, which seemed unusually quick until it transpired that the CEO of the new company was friends with my unpopular former colleague, who had given me a glowing review.

The thing to remember when building relationships (professional or otherwise) is that you never know where your paths are going to cross again or how your futures may become entwined, so in the meantime it makes sense to be nice.

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