Being kind versus being nice

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Recently, I watched an interview of Adam Grant, the organizational psychologist, bestselling author, and Wharton professor. It was interesting, as I presume most conversations with him would be, but it was his remark on being kind versus being nice that really caught my attention. He explained the two are not synonymous. A “nice interaction” leaves us feeling good whereas a “kind” experience can often make us feel the opposite—at first.

This got my wheels turning. For years I’ve quoted another professor and bestselling author, Brené Brown, to myself and others when appropriate, “Clear is kind.” For example, giving honest and clear feedback in a business review is kind because it is helpful. It doesn’t feel good to find out someone had a bad experience; however, with clear feedback on what went wrong, businesses can make changes that ultimately lead to better reviews. Similarly, when we interact with each other, it’s important to be clear. However, it’s a lot harder to do this in person, looking someone in the eye, than through an anonymous Yelp review.

It’s hard to be kind. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to be nice. When we’re nice, we are often placating those around us. We’re saying and doing the things we know make other people feel good. And that’s OK, to a point. Eventually, all the donuts and ‘attaboys have to give way to real talk.

So how might we, as leaders, be nice and kind to our teams?

  1. Be honest and specific. If a team member has let you down, you must let them know why. Have a private conversation with them and provide specific feedback that will help them learn and grow. Simply telling someone you’re “disappointed they missed a deadline” isn’t helpful. Instead, calmly explain the consequences of their mistake. It could sound something like, “I’m disappointed you missed our agreed upon deadline. As a result, two of your team members stayed late last night to finish it so we could submit the application on time.” See the difference? While it may not be a nice conversation, it’s ultimately kind to the employee and hopefully teaches a valuable lesson.
  2. Smile more. Did you know when you smile, your brain releases neuropeptides that help fight off stress? Additionally, it causes a ripple effect and suddenly those around us smile, too. When employees see a leader smiling, it may cause them to smile, and it can reduce unexpressed anxiety and fears. This can help improve performance, creativity, and efficiency.
  3. Reward excellence. When people exceed expectations, it’s important to let them know you see them and how much their efforts are appreciated. Rewards can range from elaborate to simple, but don’t discount how much a public high-five or handwritten note could mean to a person. Further, developing a formal rewards or recognition program might be something to consider if you find yourself searching for ideas on how to spotlight and encourage valuable team members.
  4. Be vulnerable. Often, leaders put on a brave face. It’s an unwritten rule that when things are uncertain or scary, we shouldn’t show fear. Although, by being open about what we are experiencing, we can build trust and connection with our people. This doesn’t mean running out of an office screaming, “We’re all going to get canned!” but it could mean admitting, “I’m not sure what the future looks like right now,” followed by a genuine promise like, “But I’m working to figure out what these changes mean to our team.” It’s vulnerable and brave, not to mention respectful and kind to employees who have real concerns. You’re letting them know you understand and that you’re working to figure things out.

While acts of kindness and being nice are two totally different ways to connect with others, they both have a time and a place. It’s often difficult, especially for people new to a management role, to find the right balance between the two, but it’s possible. And, when in doubt, be kind. Consider how much of an impact your feedback may have on someone and express it thoughtfully.


For more on kindness, read “Kindness acknowledges that you truly see another person” by Leadership Consultant Mandy Haskett.

You may also enjoy “Empathetic Leadership: Returning to the Workplace” by Leadership Consultant and certified EQ Coach Kye Hawkins.