Tag Archives: Nice

The Don Rickles School of Praise: When There’s Too Much of a Good Thing

Last week I wrote about the business case for being nice. I stand by the article and the cited research flaunting the benefits of leadership based in trust, warmth, and mutual cooperation; however, with the passing of legendary comedian Don Rickles, I’d like to honor his memory by providing a counter argument—the business case for not being so nice. More specifically, why we should be more discerning when doling out praise.

In today’s culture, leaders are encouraged to instill confidence, build self-esteem, and offer regular praise so as to encourage employees to believe in themselves. This “feel good” behavior creates a nice environment, but “nice” is not synonymous with “engaging,” “productive,” or “dynamic.” In fact, research shows that praise may actually undermine success.

I always rib people, but nobody ever gives me a hard time. I don’t know why. Maybe they’re afraid of what I might say. There’s probably a lesson in that somewhere, but I don’t know what it is.—Don Rickles

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when people are praised for ‘doing their own thing,’ they lose interest in the activity once the praise stops. Where they may have once felt satisfaction with the intrinsically rewarding enjoyment of performing the activity, the praise replaced the intrinsic reward with a contingent, external incentive, thus reducing the appeal of the intrinsic reward. As a result, expecting praise can soon make that thing seem not worth doing if you are not receiving the praise.

In another study published in Educational Leadership, people praised for personal attributes (being smart, talented, etc) were more easily discouraged with complex tasks and they stopped making an effort much sooner than those praised for ‘working hard’. Also, when praised for effort, participants overwhelmingly chose the more challenging task, while those praised for intelligence chose the easy test.

And according to Dr. Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist and professor of psychology at Cornell University, unpraised individuals show higher levels of confidence, while the overpraised are more likely to lie or exaggerate to make their performance sound better. Praise becomes addictive; once they get it, they need it and cannot function without it.

They always use the word ‘insult’ with me, but I don’t hurt anybody. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I did. I make fun of everybody and exaggerate all our insecurities.—Don Rickles

Before you are completely turned off from delivering praise (and decide to follow the Don Rickles’ style of ‘compliments’), the lesson here is not to withhold support or encouragement; what’s key is making sure the praise you deliver is accomplishing your intended purpose and being conveyed in the most impactful manner. A few ways you can maximize your praise include:

  • Be selective with praise. A compliment is more meaningful when it is kept sacred. If you do it all the time, it has less potency and creates an atmosphere of dependency. As David “Father of Advertising” Ogilvy says, it should be just uncommon enough to make each instance a momentous occasion.
  • Focus on what is within a person’s control. Don’t bother heaping compliments on characteristics that come natural; emphasis what they can consciously influence and control.
  • Avoid applause for easy tasks. A study found that people praised for an achievement that comes easily believe either 1) the praiser is not smart enough to realize how easy the task is or 2) the praiser thinks the prasiee is not smart.
  • Don’t over-praise for doing something they should be doing anyway. Recognize them for going above and beyond or finding a new way to complete a task, otherwise you are just reinforcing the minimum expectations of the job.
  • Deliver razor-sharp praise. Ambiguous, broad statements like, “You are great,” are worthless. Compliments should be specific and describe a detailed account of what they did well.

Don Rickles, derisively nicknamed Mr. Warmth, was always quick with an insult. He could disarm the most caustic audience with the most politically correctless jab. The greatest praise he offered was a verbal barb… and people begged Rickles to make fun of them. Of course, context matters so we should not try to emulate his form of tribute. Instead, use praise to build people up, but, at the same time, don’t rely on it as your primary form of communication. Keep it pointed, make it meaningful, and (I cannot stress this enough) don’t think “What would Rickles say.”

Why the Attitude? The Business Case for Being Nice

I recently received a call from a frustrated CEO who had concerns about his COO. The COO was brash, antagonistic, and exhibiting a pervasively aggressive disposition. The culture was plummeting and his staff was on the verge of a coup. The CEO and I sat down with the COO to salvage and hopefully remedy the situation.

After I heard the COO’s frustrations, many of which had merit, I dug into why he chose the attack mode. He had excuses and the CEO had retorts, but both seemed to be missing the point. So I went to the heart of issue by asking, “And you couldn’t accomplish this by being nice?” Like many leaders, he equated “nice” with being “weak.” Being a staunch fan of the movie Road House, I could not disagree more.

Road House is one of the greatest films of all time. Starring Patrick Swayze, it’s the story of Dalton, a philosopher hired to clean up bars. This Zen Bouncer ends up at the Double Deuce where we needs to get rid of the sketchy clientele, upgrade the staff, and change the mindset of how to operate a saloon. When retraining the bouncers, Dalton bestows his threes rules.

One, never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected. Two, take it outside. Never start anything inside the bar unless it’s absolutely necessary. And three, be nice.

Be nice? How can a bouncer enforce the rules with the lowlifes who reside in the Double Deuce and be nice? It’s actually a pretty easy, effective way to lead.

If somebody gets in your face and calls you a [bad name], I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the other [bouncers] will help you, and you’ll both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.

Do you notice that Dalton does not instruct his bouncers to let patrons do whatever they want? Nor does he ease up on the high standards he sets for a safe, family-friendly tavern. No, being nice is about the manner in which things are done, not what you are actually trying to accomplish. This isn’t soft; this is supported by science.

A study by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that the most altruistic members of the team gain the highest status, are more frequently preferred as cooperative interaction partners, and receive greater rewards as their virtuous efforts increase.

A Research in Organizational Behavior study concluded that leaders who project warmth are more effective than those leaders who rely on force or competence—“warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.”

Research in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that when leaders display behaviors related to self-sacrificing, their employees feel more engaged, committed, and are more likely to go out of their way to support other members of the team.

comprehensive healthcare study found that a culture of kindness not only improves employee productivity but also improves client health outcomes and satisfaction.

All together, the research is clear that a leadership model of trust, warmth, and mutual cooperation can serve as a powerful basis for a company’s culture. Just be nice. Emulate the Zen Bouncer and say, “If somebody underperforms, I want you to be nice. Provide constructive feedback. Be nice. If he won’t take your feedback, be more stern. But be nice. If you can’t turn around his performance, one of the other leaders will help you, and you’ll both be nice.”

Shark Tank’s Justification Against Being Nice

shark-tankMy wife and I recently discovered the show Shark Tank. For business-minded television viewers, this show offers a unique perspective on establishing a business, developing a product, and pitching it to prospective investors. For reality show viewers, it offers the chance to see a bunch of millionaires berate fledgling entrepreneurs.

On Shark Tank real-life business owners pitch the opportunity to invest in their idea to the “sharks in the tank” – real-life titans of industry. In the pitch, the individual presents their idea and business plan. When it goes well, the sharks have a bidding war to see who can invest in the idea. When it does not go well, they pepper the contender with concerns about the quality of the product, accuracy of the projected profitability, and his/her leadership abilities.

Last week I watched a guy who was unable to give a straight answer. Even when told to give a “yes” or “no,” he dodged the simple response. Passing on this opportunity may have been a simple decision for the sharks except for the fact that he was pitching a great product with incredible potential. Finally, one of the sharks said, “I like what you’re selling but I can’t trust a person who will not answer questions. Therefore, I’m willing to invest, but my first order of business will be to fire you.”

This may sound harsh, but is there a place for honesty OR has society’s pressures to be nice, muted our ability to provide candid feedback? Research says that nice-ness may be overrated.

A study from the Journal of Personality found that highly agreeable people are more oriented to cause harm than those rated less amiable. Recreating Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiment where he tested participants’ willingness to deliver painful electric shocks to strangers, these researchers took the participants’ personality traits into account. They found that “conscientiousness” and “agreeableness” were associated with a significantly greater willingness to administer higher-intensity electric shocks.

If you are surprised that being nice can be a bad thing, consider this: nice people are more determined to obey rules. They are less likely to dissent. And they may be more concerned with pleasing other people than in doing the right thing.

“But I’m a nice person,” you may be thinking. That may be true, but let’s not confuse being “nice” with being “virtuous.” The sharks on Shark Tank are not mean for the sake of mean. They do not purposely hurt feelings, incite anger, or create self-doubt about how you’ve spent the better part of a decade. As stated by Adam Grant, author of the book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,

[Disagreeable people] are the people who are willing to give you the critical feedback that you don’t want to hear — but you need to hear.

You can make decisions based on being liked or on doing the right thing. Once you choose, it will be the basis for how you lead. There are advantages of airing towards doing the right thing:

You will be more transparent. The rationale behind your decisions will be more easily understood, versus niceness which lends itself to an insincere veneer.

You will be fair. Your input will help people develop and grow versus letting them flounder and repeat mistakes, versus niceness which is focused on others feeling good.

You will yield long-term credibility. When you speak, others will know that good or bad, you are telling the truth.

We need to be the leaders willing to say the unpopular truths. Who don’t sugarcoat the facts. Who are more interested in making the team better than in sparing feelings. Who are not so much nice as they are respectful and courteous. This is not brutal honesty, it is simply honesty.