Nice Or Hard Nosed? Make Your Choice

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


I’ve been watching people and thinking about this ‘choice’ for decades, and so am writing this note maybe for younger people, the ones aspiring to achieve some significant success in their careers, and who therefore recognize that they must interact with other people in an effective and consistent way. Although it does occur to me, given the way things have been going lately, maybe every one of us needs to think again about where we stand.

Everyone has a choice to make: Is it your professional approach to be known as a ‘nice’ person, or do you believe it’s more effective to approach your business in a more ‘hard nosed’ way, especially in situations of conflict. When push comes to shove, where do you stand?

I must choose my words carefully here. Nice does not mean weak, or that you don’t get things done. It does not mean that you let yourself be taken advantage of, or pushed around, or that you will be excessively patient or compromising in order to avoid confrontation. It does not mean that you haven’t (thoughtfully) read The Art Of War. I flatter myself to think that I am in the ‘nice’ camp, but it’s also clear to me that necessary, meaningful change usually requires conflict, not consensus. Nor am I a huge fan of collaboration within our industry; these people are competitors, for crying out loud.

The ‘nice’ versus ‘hard nosed’ decision is more than strategic, it’s a daily philosophical choice that will affect your career and your life greatly. For example, do you believe that trust should be extended to people from outset, and at least until they prove untrustworthy? Or is it your conviction that trust must be earned, that people need to be viewed more suspiciously than not until they have proven themselves reliable? Or this: Being honest with yourself, when you are going into a serious negotiation or a tough conversation, are you determined to win all your points, period and full stop, regardless of what it takes?

All of this has been occurring to me lately because I am now old enough to have seen my industry change from one philosophy to the other, and now perhaps back again (and not just in construction this time around). When I began in the early eighties, construction was a confrontational industry. Clients would bid jobs, then rebid them, and sometimes find excuses to rebid them again, always trying to grind the contractors lower. Once they had the chance, the unlucky low bidder would turn the tables, issuing change orders at every opportunity, trying to gain back that lost advantage. Claims and lawsuits were very common. Then things changed, and ‘open book’ trust-based relationships became much more the rule. Not always, but very often. I am biased, but it’s clear to me that this approach does not compromise accountability, it increases it: You have given your word, and this ‘trust-based’ client relationship is now a critical part of your business model and therefore your personal success. So you have to hold up your end, right to the end.

But recently, in the last year or so, I’ve seen a clear trend back toward the black and white, kill or be killed approach, and this time around everyone is trying it out – private and public sector players up and down the supply chain, governments, politicians, you name it. The view seems to be re-emerging that there is coin to be made – both literally and reputationally – in the perceived willingness to go into battle from the outset, in being seen from the start as the toughest one in the room: I only win if you clearly lose.

I can’t say why this is. I would like to blame Donald Trump (and do believe his bullying tactics and electoral success are contributing to a broader, meaner attitude), though Conservatives and Liberals all over have openly embraced the tougher ‘politics of division’ – everyone is a populist these days and it seems to be working for them. But it’s not just the politicians and business people. Maybe people are just responding to the polarization and nastiness springing up all over the internet. Maybe it’s just the pendulum swinging back. I really have no idea.

On the other hand, Mark Cuban – who is a self-made billionaire at a relatively young age and who owns the Dallas Mavericks and lots of other stuff – believes that ‘niceness’ is the most underrated leadership trait. It’s worth a quick read: (

But forget all that, in the end it’s really a personal choice. It’s about how you want to work, to be perceived and anticipated in the world, what you believe will lead to greater success, and ultimately how you want to live inside your own head. There is no right/wrong answer, and you can pick your own point on the spectrum between the extremes.

Nevertheless, it requires some serious thought and a conscious choice. As you go down that road, it may be the most important professional decision you make.

(And by the way, you do get the chance to change your mind. I did. But probably only once.)
Thanks for reading.