In my utopian view of the world, I like to think that all people are nice, honest, friendly and helpful. I like to see the best in people and trust that they will do the right thing. To me, personal values are important and coexist with making money. But there are times that I wonder if this personality type belongs in the business world; a space which seems to be dominated by people who negotiate hard, often play dirty, put themselves first and see business as a fight with only one winner. In a dog-eat-dog world where survival of the fittest is the unspoken law, is there a place for a ‘nice guy’?

To me business is challenging, exciting and always interesting; the pace, dynamism and endless complex questions intrigue me. There is nothing more rewarding than starting, growing and building businesses. But day-to-day business life means working with a lot of different people, some of whom are sharks that will bite if you let your guard down. During my time in business there have been a few bruises, breaks and injuries from such people. I have had business partners who knowingly deceived tens of thousands. There was the nightmare landlord who ripped off extra rent payments, scared off a business buyer and refused to contribute a single cent to his own building. I have had clients that purposely didn't pay their account, then went into voluntarily liquidation to dodge their debts. Even a co-shared office ended up in VCAT because I damaged a bookshelf worth $50!

Despite this hard-nosed approach of many to business, it seems counter-productive to me. I understand that assets and livelihoods need protection, but can’t grasp a ‘win at all costs’ attitude. Whilst some of the perpetrators of negativity in my past have just been devious people, others just felt they needed to fight rather than lose a single cent or (even worse) risk not being ‘right’. Simple, outcome-focused and honest conversations with a willingness to compromise and find solutions that work for both sides are not only useful in disputes, but a solid foundation to build relationships. They build relationships that can be prosperous, rather than torching every single bridge between you. It’s a problem of short sightedness vs. long sightedness. The disagreement that I mentioned over a $50 bookcase meant that I never again referred a single business to that accountant, worth many thousands of dollars per year.

The irony of this hardass approach is that a softer human touch has infinitely more appeal and can actually be a very solid foundation for business growth. Customers love it. Employees love it. Co-workers love it. Suppliers love it. Business partners love it. Interactions with real care and feeling stand out like a dog’s proverbials. Maintaining softer human qualities, fostering sensitivity, compromise, kindness and a genuine interest in other people are huge strengths for a business. It increases retention of staff and not only keeps your clients but drives new business through word of mouth. Small and medium businesses have the advantage here, just because they are still small enough to be personal. In these businesses values are not just a corporate statement or taglines coming from the marketing department.

So it seems that there is value in being a ‘nice guy’ in business, but you do need to protect yourself. It is very easy to become hardened in business; to lose your open, friendly attitude and get sucked into believing that you need to be a warrior to succeed. The skill is in setting boundaries around what you will accept, without building an emotional armour around yourself. Here are a few tactics that I have developed along the way:

  • Be aware that people will take from you whatever you let them take. Ultimately, it's up to you to gently and firmly set boundaries.
  • Saying 'no' or sticking to your values doesn’t have to be done in an inflammatory way. Calm conversations are much more effective. (Assertiveness and voice volume are not the same thing.)
  • Understand the difference between a short term 'win' and long term financial returns from business relationships.
  • Avoid battles; even if you win, you will lose something. They waste a lot of energy, time and emotion.
  • Get legal protections. Small business owners are very poor at contracts, terms and conditions and knowing the law. Verbal contracts and handshake deals fall apart with a puff of wind, so get everything in writing.
  • Watch for warning signs: if you see bad behaviour, it is probably going to continue, so weigh up the long-term costs and benefits.
  • If clients are not paying you, be strong enough to stop supply. It doesn’t get any easier for them to pay their bills as the bills get bigger.
  • Family and friends. If you are going into business with people you know; get legal advice and have contracts for everything.
  • New ventures and contracts. Take your time; do due diligence and get lots of advice. (Take the advice!)
  • Do business with people you like and trust – there are a lot of really great people out there, so you can avoid sharks.
  • Remember that satisfaction comes from living your values, which don’t always result in financial reward.
  • Know what you want from your business and how much money is enough for you; it’s easy to get sucked into a money-at all costs attitude but usually that’s not the only reason you are in business.

By: Dr. Warren Harmer