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Being nice at work doesn’t have to be hard

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Aditi Sharma Kalra wonders about the perils of being a goody two-shoes in the office.

“I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school… I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy…”

Does anyone remember Jill Morrison’s character, aka “the crying girl”, saying this on stage in the iconic movie Mean Girls? The movie focuses on the experience of home-schooled Lindsay Lohan’s  journey into the cool club, i.e. the Plastics, highlighting the culture of cliques, gossip and rules for popularity in the high-school society.

In a time where it was easy to movies about teenagers doing dumb things, respected critic Roger Ebert had said Mean Girls was actually “smart and funny. It even contains some wisdom”.

Why am I still talking about it 16 years on? Because, and I hope you saw this coming, I’m trying to navigate the world of workplaces, just as you are – and I found myself thinking about the rules of being nice in the office without being taken for granted or being known as the boring one.

“Being kind and compassionate are virtues of being a leader in the current environment. These traits enable us to be seen as humane, given that everyone has their challenges,” Umasuten Karisnan, HR Director, Intel Technology, tells me. Sharmeel Kaur, Head, Human Resources, Business HR, DHL Asia Pacific Shared Services, agrees, stating that “compassion and civility” are the traits that come to mind being nice at work.

Adds Lay Kee, Group HR Manager, KMU|Eiscon, “As an HR practitioner, I always strive to be nice at work and provide full support to co-workers within our authority.” To her, being nice implies being flexibility for colleagues, e.g. especially when they are facing unforeseen difficulties in compliance with company policy or deadline. Not only does this help to build a good rapport with them, but it also means that the beneficiaries of niceness typically don’t say “no” when HR reaches out asking for support.

So how you be nice without it backfiring? Is it possible to be too nice, especially in the workplace?  Well, to this, Lay Kee, says it’s important to get our viewpoint in no uncertain terms whilst communicating. Karisnan agrees: “The best way to avoid being taken advantage of is to ensure we set clear expectations about work deliverables and outside of work activities.”

Stand firm on your principles so that it becomes evident that your niceness is not meant to be manipulated.

At the end of the working day, it is important to remember that we are all stewards of the company and it is our duty to always give our best in whatever role we may have in the organisation, affirms Arjuna Raj, Chief Strategy Officer, LittleLives. “Be it a leadership role where hard decisions are made that sometimes may not sit well with others or a customer-facing role where a customer may be unhappy with you in a situation beyond your control. The similarity between the two roles is to remind yourself that a smile simply goes a long way.”

Kaur adds: “Being too nice can sometimes come across as passive and bland. To change that, don’t suppress your personality. Stand firm on your principles so that it becomes evident that your niceness is not meant to be manipulated.”

I agree with all my interviewees – niceness can come in many shapes and forms, but compassion and empathy are foremost, to my mind. Setting expectations straight and communicating clearly help in not being taken for granted. While some situations (and people) require us to drop the kindness and take a more direct, perhaps authoritative approach, and we shouldn’t hesitate to do that if that’s what gets the job done.

Something that Arjuna said resonates with me, and perhaps a nice way to conclude: “It is crucial to remind ourselves that in the end, any decision or outcome should be of the company’s best interest. Being a good role model triumphs being nice all the time.”

Photo / StockUnlimited


A condensed version of this Personal Growth column was published in Human Resources Online’s January-February 2020 edition of the Singapore magazine and will soon be published in the Q1 edition of the Malaysia magazine.

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