©McKinsey
McKinsey's "dirty dozen" of abusive workplace behaviours

"Nice?" the guy in the car ad once said to the sweet old couple sitting at a table on the pavement. "Nice?" His voice dripped with contempt for a word that conveys so little, and yet so much.

I have long since forgotten the car being advertised, but I always remember the voice, because niceness has intrigued me for a long time. Yes, I know that you might wonder about a statement like that coming from someone who has written two books about South Africans not being nice about each other. (Insults are also a passion of mine, because they are the ultimate litmus test of freedom of speech, and many countries still have laws that make it a criminal offense to insult the president. Zambia, for example.)

Oh, I know only too well that the world would be a dreadfully boring place if everyone was nice all the time. Imagine having to be nice about Tony Yengeni or Ronald Suresh Roberts. It's not natural.

So to clarify: the niceness I am thinking of is the kind that emerges from dealing with people in your daily life, and more particularly, at work. Treating your colleagues, your customers and your suppliers with respect, for instance. Being polite to waiters (unlike, it is alleged, Ronald Suresh Roberts). Talking rather than shouting. Making eye contact when meeting people. Smiling before you snarl. Finding out the facts before you throw your toys. Holding back on that sarky comment you're just dying to make, because you know that even if it'll boost your own ego temporarily, it will hurt the feelings of the other person and even damage the relationship.

Granted, niceness and capitalism have for the most part been mutually exclusive. Greed is good. Get ahead by stomping on your colleagues. Slash jobs and the share price rises: Jack Welch - Neutron Jack - the management guru of choice.

But could things be changing? Could being nice make business sense? An American customer service expert called Ed Horrell has written a book about being nice and its impact on business. It's called The Kindness Revolution: The Company-Wide Culture Shift That Inspires Phenomenal Customer Service.
(notice how business books never, ever have a simple title).

Horrell argues that most companies don't 'own' their customer, they simply 'rent' them.* Those companies that do 'own' their customers - whose customers would never consider going to a competitor - all practise a few simple values throughout the organisation:

Dignity
Respect
Courtesy
Kindness
Simple, really. Of all of these values, Horrell found that the one that made the most differences was...kindness. Horrell goes further, with another astoundingly simple insight: the way you treat your employees is the way they will treat their customers. If employees are not well-treated, they take out their negativity on customers, who will in turn speak to their own family, friends and colleagues, and so the cycle will continue.

You would think the equation would be obvious, but all too often, "star" performers are allowed to get away with murder. One of the worst mistakes any organisation can make is the failure to hold disruptive or abusive employees accountable for their actions. Workplace jerks, argues Robert Sutton in the McKinsey Quarterly's most popular article of 2007, have a significant impact on the performance of a business. Research has shown that employees with abusive supervisors were much more likely to resign (surprise surprise) while those who stayed showed reduced levels of commitment to their employers, even depression and other health problems.

This has an impact that even an accountant should be able to appreciate. Sutton suggests calculating the "total cost of jerks" (TCJ). With impacts ranging from distraction from important tasks, absenteeism and high staff turnover to reduced creativity and innovation, lack ability to attract good staff and even the costs of litigation, workplace jerks cost companies money.

Sometimes - in fact, quite often - workplace jerks get right to the top. The world's leading expert on psychopaths, a mild-mannered Canadian called Robert Hare, has drawn attention recently to the psychopath in the corner office. Psychopaths aren't all lurking in the basement of their mothers' houses; many of the most successful ones occupy high positions in the Fortune 500. Some of the factors Hare associates with corporate psychopathy include the following:
glibness and superficial charm; grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; conning and manipulativeness; lack of remorse or guilt; shallow affect (i.e., a coldness covered up by dramatic emotional displays that are actually playacting); callousness and lack of empathy; and the failure to accept responsibility for one's own actions.
(Not every horrible boss is a psychopath, of course; he or she is more likely to be a narcissist.)

If, as Sutton and Horrell argue, niceness makes business sense for companies and customers, it also makes sense, in my experience, for clients and their agencies. There is a a difference between the work we do for a nice client and an abusive one. If a client treats us with respect, if we actually enjoy meeting with them, we make more discretionary effort on their behalf and we put more into our work. Everybody benefits.

So, how do we ensure that niceness prevails? Sutton argues that abusive behaviour is contagious - that even nice people turn into jerks if they work with jerks. Earlier this year I worked with the ventriloquist and comedian Conrad Koch on a roadshow for FNB Commercial; during one part of his routine, he demonstrated very effectively how one instance of grouchiness can contaminate an entire organisation.

This means that you cannot allow the presence of jerks (male or female) in your organisation:
Once disdain, anger, and contempt are ignited, they spread like wildfire. Researcher Elaine Hatfield calls this tendency "emotional contagion":12 if you display contempt, others (even spectators) will respond in much the same way, creating a vicious circle that can turn everyone in the vicinity into a mean-spirited monster just like you...A swarm of jerks creates a civility vacuum, sucking the warmth and kindness out of everyone who enters and replacing them with coldness and contempt.
Sutton argues for a "jerk-free workplace", not always easy to accomplish. This means not hiring jerks, no matter how good they are at what they do. It means being on the lookout for psychopaths - difficult, because they tend to be very charming on the surface - as well as narcissists. (Surprisingly, according to official estimates narcissists form only one percent of the population, although this is unlikely to be accurate).

Ultimately, there cannot be any jerks in management, because it is up to them to drive the values of dignity, respect, courtesy and kindness. It is also up to management to ensure that anyone in the organisation who fails to practise those values must either change their ways or leave.

A niceness revolution would make life better for us as employees, as customers, as business people - as human beings. How about starting it now?

* Anyone who doesn't work in marketing will probably be horrified by the concept of being "owned" by the company they buy their products or services from. Relax, it's just hubris.