How Being Nice Can Help Your Career

Kindness can be the key to professional success

Two colleagues getting along and working together

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Looking for a new job or trying to get ahead at the job you have? Try this exercise: Be nice and be kind. It can help you more than you might expect, and serve as the key to a successful career.

“Try to take inspiration from President John F. Kennedy and think not what others can do for you,” said Brian Snedvig, founder of CV and resume consulting startup Jofibo, in a Twitter conversation with The Balance. “Think instead of what [you] can do for others."

It’s not just the right thing to do—it’s also the best thing you can do for your career. Research has shown that being agreeable (otherwise known as “being nice”) is associated with better friendships, stronger family relationships, and increased professional success. In short, thinking of others builds better relationships, which creates a stronger network that can help you when you need it.

But that’s not the only way that being nice at work can benefit you professionally.

Why Being Nice Matters

There are many reasons why being nice at work can help your career.

Helps You Make a Good First Impression

“We know initial judgments about a candidate are often made in the first four or five seconds when meeting them in person or seeing them virtually,” said Mike Komives, the older adult employment specialist at the Orange County, NC Department of Aging, in a LinkedIn interview with The Balance. “We advise job seekers to consider: ‘Do you appear super-interested in yourself, overly self-confident? Or do you have an openness, a friendly and inviting smile?’”

Gives You Peace of Mind

One of the worst job interview mistakes is to badmouth your previous employers. Why? Because the hiring manager might assume that you’re the problem—and that you’re likely to treat your new employer the same way.

Negativity during job interviews—or during your day-to-day performance after you’ve been hired—can come back to haunt you. 

It can cost you job offers, sour your relationships with colleagues, and even get you fired. It’s better to be nice, focus on the positive, and enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you conduct yourself professionally.

Makes It Easier for Others to Help You

“We recommend job seekers make it as easy as possible for anyone to help them,” said Komives. “Do not ask people for a job; rather, focus on guiding them to provide names of people [and] contacts.”

In Komives’s experience, contacts always thank the job seeker who uses this method for making it very easy to help. By asking for something that’s easy to provide—“all you want are names,” he noted—the job seeker provides their connection with a chance to feel good about themselves and gleans valuable information at the same time.

Ensures That People Will Want to Help in the Future

“I am convinced that people who help others also seem to be people who receive assistance if and when needed,” said Komives.

Think of it this way: if you had a choice between helping someone who’s always been there for you and helping someone who hasn’t used their resources on your behalf, which would you choose?

Creates a Nicer World

But perhaps the best reason to help is that it’s needed—perhaps now more than ever.

“In this environment, job seekers have encountered too many challenges,” said Komives. “Jobs being cut, reduced, or totally eliminated; income not being received anymore; health concerns due to the pandemic—not only in immediate family, but possibly extended family as well; and overall uncertainty about almost everything.”

Choosing to Be Kind

In his 2010 commencement speech at Princeton University, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos talked about the importance of choices.

“Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?” he asked, continuing, “I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices.”

The choice to be kind can help you be successful in ways that go beyond your workplace. It can make you a happier, healthier person in general. 

The key lies in the subtly different motivation between kindness and niceness. Kindness implies a desire to provide benefit to the other person, while niceness implies a desire to be agreeable.

Ultimately, though, you can and should strive to do both in your career. For example, you might provide a reference for a colleague both because you genuinely want to help and because you want them to think well of you. 

The two are not mutually exclusive and both motivations provide benefits to multiple parties—namely you, your co-worker, and the employer who’s being made aware of your co-worker’s sterling qualities.

The Benefits of Kindness

Kindness benefits you as well as the people you choose to help. "There are measurable emotional and physical benefits for people who choose to demonstrate kindness,” said Janet Scarborough Civitelli, Ph.D., a psychologist and career coach, in an email interview with The Balance. “Some of the benefits are tangible, like the release of mood-improving hormones and reduced inflammation in the body. Other benefits are less tangible but contribute to making the world a more generous and compassionate place, and couldn't we all use more of that?"

How to Incorporate Niceness (and Kindness) in Your Career

Ready to make your work environment a nicer, kinder place? There are many small steps you can take to get started.

1. Look for a Chance to Help

Don’t wait until your contacts ask for referrals, recommendations, and other job search help. Volunteer your connections, your time, and your proofreading and mock interview assistance. 

Job searching is stressful at the best of times; you can make it less stressful by offering a hand before you’re asked.

2. Offer an Escape

“Simple things like talking to someone about things other than their challenges can often provide an escape from the desperate feeling he/she/they might have,” said Amy Soricelli, vice president of career services at Berkeley College, in a LinkedIn conversation with The Balance. “Sometimes a change of topic can add fresh perspective and with that usually comes hope."

3. Take a Deep Breath

One of the kindest things you can do for your fellow humans is to recognize that no one is perfect. Practice waiting a beat before you jump to conclusions, and be ready to give your colleagues and contacts a break. Even super-competent, organized, professional people drop the ball now and then. Look for chances to catch it. Your kindness will be remembered.