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Why it always pays to be a nice guy in the office

In the workplace, undercutting and competition are often seen as the way to get ahead. That's not the case

An effective worker will ask clients probing questions to understand their problem and listen to the responses intently. (iStock)

April to June is the time when leadership teams come together to evaluate the performance of different businesses and the people who run them, and decide on promotions, pay-outs and raises. It’s a time that has me reflecting on some of my own experiences of going through this process—both as a team member and a team leader. This year, I kept returning to a lesson I learnt when I worked at IT services company Virtusa in 2008, and the executive team met at a beautiful golf resort in a suburb of Boston.

The second day began with a discussion about the performance of the sales and account management teams. In sales terminology, the “hunters” are adept at breaking into new accounts and the “farmers” are skilled at growing an account after it has been acquired. The hunters are considered outgoing, better at taking rejection, and more persistent. The farmers are better at developing deeper and valuable relationships with a fewer number of people. Account managers are typically the farmer types, but breaking into adjacent and unrelated businesses within a large account requires an account manager to also demonstrate hunting skills.

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At the end of the exercise, Chris topped—he wasn’t the flamboyant stereotype of a winner that most of us have in mind. He was quiet, and shy to a fault. If people could be bucketed as introverts and extroverts, there was no question he would go into the list of introverts. We tend to stereotype people, judge them quickly and have the wrong impression that introverts can’t make friends or that extroverts can’t engage in deeper conversation. As we know, stereotyping results in the wrong conclusions and decisions.

There was something about Chris that gave you a sense of safety in his presence; you just felt he was a trustworthy. And that was the word every client used to describe him. Chris never overpromised, unlike some of his peers who had running battles with the fulfilment teams because they had promised their client, say, a BMW 6 Series at the price of a Tata Nano. The fulfilment teams were then left with the impossible task of figuring out how to do this. Chris would ensure his clients were never overbilled, and any efficiency improvement was shared with them in a transparent manner. He believed that this was simply the right thing to do. He would share bad news upfront and take the beating for it rather than postpone the inevitable to a point where it would be too late for the client to think of a Plan B. He was, therefore, the kind of individual everyone wanted to do business with, and his clients would give him strong references when they were contacted by decision makers in other parts of their organization.

I once asked him if I could accompany him for one of his meetings and he happily agreed. It was a masterclass in listening and consultative selling. He asked probing questions to understand the client’s problem, and listened to their responses intently. It wasn’t difficult for me to figure out that he had a deep understanding of the culture of his client organization and knew what would work and what wouldn’t. He also had a very good understanding of his own company’s capabilities and drew on the expertise in other parts of the organization, beyond the line of sight of most of the sales and account management teams. They were always willing to go the extra mile for Chris.

In short, Chris earned the trust of his clients by putting their needs above everything else. He had earned the trust of his colleagues because he was fair and transparent in all his dealings. And this meant he earned their respect too. In the workplace, undercutting and competition are often seen as the way to get ahead. Instead I say, nice guys do win, and it’s a true pleasure to work with them.

T.N. Hari is an author, angel investor, and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups. His most recent book is From Pony To Unicorn: Scaling A Start-Up Sustainably.

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