Being Short-Term Nice Is Long-Term Harmful

Being nice in the short-term can be the meanest thing you can do to someone in the long term.

Everyone loves the “nice person,” but few understand that being nice in the short term is NOT always in the best long-term interest of the person you’re interacting with. 

Sure, it feels good to be nice. Every parent wants to see their child smile over a bowl of ice cream… but you’d never let your kids eat ice cream all the time. It’s terrible for them and would seriously damage their health over the long term. 

And yet, many people use the “nice” label personally and professionally as an excuse to lie to you (doing the same kind of damage you’d be doing to your kid with endless ice cream). What they don’t realize is that short-term nice is long-term harmful.

Now, this is not a reason for you to be a jerk or intentionally mean. It’s just that if nice people were more willing to truly care about the interest of the person they are dealing with, they’d actually do more to help them in the long term. 

To many people, being nice is about telling lies (albeit white lies) to people.

Many nice people are liars.

Telling people they did a great job on a presentation when that was not true.

Telling people the outfit looks great when it does not flatter them.

Telling people that they are sure to be successful even if they do not change.

That’s not usually a way to be long-term nice. It is very short-term oriented and lazy. 

How can you expect the people around you to get better if you don’t tell them what you honestly think? And if you’re not honest, you better believe the feedback you’re getting back from them isn’t doing you any good, either.

Failing makes people better.

“The worst thing you can do for those you love is the things they could and should do themselves.” – Abraham Lincoln

Nice people are often cleaning up for those around them (literally and figuratively). That’s being short-term nice but long-term mean.

You need to let people do things for themselves that they should do for themselves.

You should not treat people like babies or over-protect them. There is truly a Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Letting people fail is often the nicest thing you can do for someone in the long-term. Teachers should not need to give As to all their students. 

Failing not only teaches resilience, but it also provides incredibly valuable real-world feedback. The real world is brutally honest, especially when there’s money involved. Being short-term nice does not prepare the other person for the feedback they can expect in the real world.

The four quadrants of “nice.”

Think of four quadrants with the x-axis being short-term nice or mean … and the y-axis being long-term nice or mean.

  • Best case: You are both considerate and empathetic short-term.. and you care about the person’s well-being long-term.
  • Second-best case: You’re not tactful, but you still help the person long-term (this is the Asperger’s quadrant).
  • But most ‘nice’ people are in the short-term nice but long-term mean quadrant: You lie to people so you don’t hurt their feelings and avoid confrontation.
  • Of course, the worst quadrant is both the short-term mean AND long-term mean. Those people are just complete jerks.

Finding Your Radical Candor.

Kim Scott wrote a book called Radical Candor that lays out how to both personally care about another person and challenge them directly to improve (top right quadrant).

Here’s what Scott says about challenging others with honest, transparent feedback:

Challenging others and encouraging them to challenge you helps build trusting relationships because it shows 1) you care enough to point out both the things that aren’t going well and those that are and that 2) you are willing to admit when you’re wrong and that you are committed to fixing mistakes that you or others have made.

As long as you are as committed to fixing your own mistakes (and owning up to them when they happen), then challenging others to do the same is a reasonable ask. 

It’s not about being “nice.” It’s about caring enough about the people in your life to give them honest, fair feedback.

You can be honest and respectful at the same time.

Most “nice” people need to learn that there is a way to be both honest and respectful. There’s a way to get yourself firmly into that top right quadrant. It’s about how you give someone honest feedback as long as they know it is coming from the right place. 

This is a skill you can get better at. With many iterations, you’ll learn that some approaches work better than others. And while it can be painful to learn this skill, just remember it’s in the best long-term interest of anyone you interact with. 

Here’s how to be honest and respectful at the same time: 

1. Open with any and all specific positive feedback you have. 

Specific positive feedback explains to someone what they did well. Find at least one thing you honestly thought was good. If you can’t, look harder. There has to be something you appreciated about what the person did, even if it’s just the effort they put in.

Starting on this note sets the tone for the entire conversation. 

2. Provide honest feedback about what and how the other person could improve. 

Don’t just tell them what didn’t work; tell them what didn’t work and provide some simple ideas to improve.

It’s very easy to criticize, but it’s much harder to provide actionable feedback. That’s what you should strive for. If you expect the other person to work hard to improve (and you should), then you should put in the effort to give actionable advice. 

If you open with the positive and follow up with actionable advice, you’ll be surprised at how honest you can be without losing the other person.

If everyone is nice to you, then you are the sucker.

If everyone around you is nice to you and unwilling to challenge you, it probably means that you are less open to feedback.  No one is going to give someone feedback if they are going to be yelled at. 

As you get less feedback, your growth rate will stall.  This especially happens to people who become rich and powerful — they often end up surrounding themselves with people that are so worried about losing their jobs that no one tells them the truth.

Forget being “nice.” Help the people around you instead. In the long run, they’ll thank you for it.

Special thanks to Thomas Waschenfelder for his help and edits.

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