Don’t be nice… Because in the business world, all nice is “too nice” — or is it?

After yet another unpleasant experience in which I was forced to confront the gripping reality that I simply don’t fit into corporate American culture, I posed the following question to a group of Social-Eco Entrepreneurs:

<Is it possible to be honest, ethical, (dare I say this?) compassionate or even kind to others AND be successful in business?

This may seem like a strange question but…  when one follows the news on activities of some of the most successful businesses, Walmart or BP, for example, one can only wonder if it is possible to be a genuinely good person and successful in business.  It often seems that what businesses need to do to become successful conflicts with what a healthy, democratic and successful society needs. Anyone who’s worked in corporate America must have noticed that often the most aggressive and cutthroat succeed.  I’ve certainly worked for people who’ve asked me to do things that, frankly, violated my own sense of ethics. Yet I’ve watched as such unscrupulous folks glide right up to the top. Corporations have a responsibility to their stockholders to maximize profits, and sometimes they must harm their surrounding communities (or even entire countries!) in the process.

As I strive to launch my own small business, I struggle with this concept. Can I succeed while maintaining my own integrity? Frankly, most small business owners I meet are money-motivated and will do ANYTHING to maximize profits. I simply do not want to do anything that will sacrifice my integrity–regardless of the financial costs.  Yet I find myself wondering whether perhaps that mindset precludes my business success. (A friend once told me a story of a kind woman who started a clothing store. She felt so sorry for her poor customers who couldn’t afford things, that she ended up just giving things away–for free. Eventually, she went out of business.)

Any thoughts on this? I’d really love to hear people’s opinions on this. Also has anyone else struggled with this? I mean, the desire to be successful in business but without resorting to tactics that will harm others or the community and without being cutthroat?  >>

45 Replies:

I was very moved and inspired when I discovered that (to date) there were not one or two but 45 responses from entrepreneurs to my question.  I was unsure of myself when I’d asked it.  Thus far, just about everyone I’d encountered in the business world–whether they’d fancied themselves “liberal” or “conservative”–was “money motivated.”  All that mattered to them was the bottom line.

Yet the above question provoked a lively discussion from entrepreneurs who, like me, sought to earn a living but without including the greed that overwhelms most businesses today.  They are striving, as I am, to launch and succeed in businesses that do not harm others, enterprises that contribute to rather than devalue our society, endeavors that enable us to make some money but perhaps not all of the money, so that there is some left for our fellow human, so that we’re able to share rather than hoard the wealth.  I find it inspiring in these troubled times that there are people who do care, who do try to make things better.  It may be that there aren’t enough of us, that our resources are inadequate, that there isn’t enough time or that we are all too few in number, too little, too late.  But at least there are people still left in this world who have the capacity to care.  And some of them are successful businesspeople striving not to operate using faulty, unethical, amoral principles.

It’s a win-win situation, really, when we can operate a small business with a plan to succeed for ourselves but also for our community.  I’m talking about the clothing store operator who genuinely loves clothing.  So she opens up a clothing store not just to make money but to share her love for uniquely designed clothing with her community.  Or a restaurant owner with a unique recipe or concept who, yes, seeks to make money, but also has a strong desire to share good food with his community.

That is a very different way to approach a business than that of a CEO hired for his business expertise who knows nothing or cares little about the widget his company markets but knows a great deal about how to maximize profits.  Such a CEO might be able to sell anything to anyone–regardless of the social or moral costs.  He might be able to convince an elderly person on a fixed income who cannot afford and truly has no need for a widget to buy that widget anyway.  He might be able to bully and intimidate his employees into doing whatever he tells them.  He can bully and intimidate his competition, putting smaller companies out of business, or making it impossible for them to exist once his large corporation has dominated the entire market.  He can bully his customers so that they’re afraid to complain and have no choice but to buy his widgets at  whatever price he chooses once the competition has been eliminated and his company is the only widget company in the country.  But in the end, he is just a bully.  He appears before the paparazzi as a successful CEO, but he is only a well-dressed sociopath–bent on destroying the entire world, if it gets in the way of his personal success.

So why are we as a society rewarding sociopathology?  Why do those of us who are not sociopaths feel as though we don’t fit in?  I had trouble finding work in sales because I couldn’t sell anything to anyone.  I used to feel bad about that.  Later, I discovered that I was very good in sales–if I believed the product was worthwhile.  Working as a fundraiser for a nonprofit seemed to be my calling, and I was very good at it, as long as I supported the cause.   I believe it was Barbara Sher (correct me if I’m wrong) who wrote about this.  People who can sell anything to anyone have no social conscience.  They’re sociopathic.  Lacking in empathy for others, they’ll act only in their own self interest and just try to sell whatever to whomever whenever, regardless of the consequences.  Is that the person I want to be?  A sociopath?  Of course not.

Yet our current society appears to be rewarding the above behavior.  Why?  Do corporations just naturally lean toward sociopathology, as is suggested by the documentary, “The Corporation”?  Or do sociopaths just strike us as attractive because we admire their lack of feeling as a sort of armor that makes them fearless and immune while the rest of us just can’t help feeling sorry, so we hold back?

I’m glad I asked the above question.  The replies were fascinating and gave me much to think about.  It’s easy to forget sometimes that there are all kinds of people in this world.  Mass media only exposes us to a small aspect of the world.  We can’t always meet others who are similar to us.  Sometimes we have to retain a little faith and use our imagination to recognize that we’re not the only ones who think as we do.  Surely there are others who see the danger in unrelenting greed and selfishness.

And so I’m inspired to write.  I wrote a reply to the many replies, wrote this blog, then spend time editing and adding to this blog.  I’m grateful for the Internet, grateful for the chance to reach out to the others out there who are trying as I am to find a better way outside the status quo.

>>Thanks everyone for replying. These responses were very thought-provoking & inspiring, & I’m still mulling them over.  Shel, I’m glad you’ve written a book! I’m so inspired by these replies that I’m going to write about it  in my blog at

I’ve read every response so far & am encouraged by & grateful for the successful ppl who are able to stand by their ideals yet succeed in business, though, I myself have found it to be a challenge.

I asked the above question based on experiences I’ve had working for other people–both non-profit & for-profit companies alike.  I’m increasingly seeing ruthless, cutthroat behavior on the part of both employer and employee.  I’ve found that I can’t stay true to my ideals & work for other people, but even when I network w/other entrepreneurs, I still find a very conservative, anti-employee, anti-compassionate bias on their part also.  I rarely meet other entrepreneurs with a politically progressive, socially-conscious perspective.  Greed, selfishness & narcissism seem to be present in every business and I think our money-oriented society has much to do with this.  Just as for-profit corps are responsible to their stockholders, non-profits are responsible to their donors & are often just as ruthless as the for-profits.

Yet how can this be with the idealism that originates these same organizations?  This is why I wonder whether the overall system itself is set up in such a way to make it nearly impossible to succeed while remaining idealistic and socially conscious.

I could give many examples of this, but how about a certain non-profit food shelf that claimed to promote kindness and giving?  After working there, I found that the idealistic hippie who’d founded the organization (because he wanted to save the world) had been fired (by his own nonprofit?!) and that the women employed w/them would never get promoted (it was white-male dominated) and were only hired because they were dating a male employee, and that the majority of ppl working there didn’t care at all about feeding the poor but were using the organization to further their own personal goals.

That is simply one example out of many I’ve experienced. And so I can’t help but think that our society is somehow set up to encourage ruthlessness and greed and to discourage idealism.  And if that is the case, I just wonder how one succeeds while maintaining their integrity though, as I said, I feel very encouraged by these responses.

I’ve been told many times, by potential employers, by the way, that I’m “too nice.”  Why is that a bad thing?

Recently left a job working for someone who wanted me, as supervisor, to have a “punishing” attitude toward employees.  While I wanted to reward employees who worked especially hard & were producing, my boss wanted me to just penalize the “bad” employees who weren’t producing enough.  Often those employees were just needing a little coaching & mentorship, but the threat of punishment just made them grumble.  My boss was having trouble finding good employees and getting the good ppl to stay.  My argument was that if we create a positive work environment, pay  employees well, provide them with bonuses or some sort of benefits when they did well, that we’d retain our best employees, &not need to spend so much time interviewing, hiring then training new employees only to watch them quit the next day (yes, many ppl quit after only one day!) & save money, time & energy, on our part, in the long wrong.

Essentially, this was a losing argument. I realized my leadership style didn’t match that of my boss & I was irritating him whenever I made the suggestion.  (This in spite of the fact that I succeeded in getting employees who weren’t doing well & who were on the verge of quitting to not only stick with the job but to become top performers!) Yep, my boss’ need to exert power of his employees superseded the more pressing need of running the office more efficiently & even maximizing profits.  <<


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