December 10, 2013

So, You Think the People You Hire Are ‘Nice’?

Of course, the people you hire are nice—otherwise, you wouldn’t hire them, right?

They are not only a nice fit from the skills and experience standpoint, but are also socially, professionally and ethically really “nice” people.

That much is regarded as common sense and is common recruiter perception. (After all, what recruiter would recommend someone who isn’t nice?) However, also quite common are the exasperating problems with the demon employee, who, after being hired, is about as nice as lice as (s)he bleeds your hopes and shreds your innocent expectations.

Really Nice, or Just “Zombie Nice”?

Then there are the “zombie nice”—the candidates and employees who behave or act perfectly nice, maybe even too nice, but whose souls, or what’s left of them, are not really into it, having decided (consciously or otherwise) that “nice” is just for show or otherwise in narrow self-interest.

Also, not to be ignored, despite their tendency to self-effacement, are the “mice nice”—too timid to stop being nice to everyone, including always being nice to office bullies and incorrigible ingrates.

Nonetheless, faith in the “genuinely nice” candidate or employee is strong and undeterred by what are taken to be only aberrations from the nice norm. For some people, that faith is, in fact, too strong—indeed, it is quite common for otherwise very perceptive people to be a tad, or worse, seriously naïve about how nice somebody or everybody is.

At the other extreme, cynical, skeptical and pessimistic attitudes about the niceness of others may preclude ever believing any candidate is “really” nice.

So, to find out whether or to be sure you’re not one of the too gullible or the too distrustful, to help you think very clearly about what should count as “nice” and inferred from it at work and elsewhere, and, especially, to reduce the odds of your hiring the Spawn of Satan or wrongly conclude that you are about to, take the following true-or-false “niceness quiz” I’ve devised—and heed the accompanying analysis.

Along the way, it is important to note that there is a huge difference between mistaken assessment of an individual’s niceness, having mistaken standards of evidence for niceness and having a mistaken concept of niceness. Clearly, if your concept of “nice” is flawed, e.g., lacks “construct validity”, so is all the rest.

What this exercise is testing for and analyzing is, in large part, some common conceptions of niceness, including, in all likelihood, yours and everyone else’s. Hence, this quiz is not designed merely to identify your level of faith in the niceness of others, but also, upon analysis of the results and concepts, to critique or vindicate it.

So, for the purpose of this quiz, assuming “nice” means “socially, morally and professionally well-intentioned, well-mannered, considerate, responsible and caring” (setting aside physical charms), is each of the following (mostly) true or (mostly) false?

(If you don’t like my definition of “nice”, use your own, but still answer the questions.)

The “Niceness” Quiz

True, or false?

1. The more power you offer a candidate, the nicer (s)he will be after hiring. If you think this is “true” (or, herein and hereafter, “mostly true”, “most probably true”, etc.), you probably tend to regard as a necessary or even sufficient condition for being nice the state of feeling secure, safe and in control of one’s life.

This is a version of faith in the doctrine of “original innocence”—people are bad only because bad things have happened to them, because their needs (or wants) are unmet, because they are afraid, etc.

The tacit belief is that when people are not nice, it’s only because fear, frustration, anger, depression, powerlessness or some other negative stressing influence is preventing it (unless they, genetically speaking, have through some twist of fate, the wiring of a Terminator robot).

On this “innocent” view, to the extent that getting more power means more control over negative influences, it also means nicer attitudes and behavior once that power is acquired.

Such a doctrine of “original innocence” was deeply embedded in traditional Japanese culture: “Until the age of seven, all children are angels” is how their venerable folk wisdom puts it. But, what happens at seven?

At seven, the traditionally omnipotent, pampered Japanese child got straitjacketed by school, the community and, later on, by the company (unlike Western children literally put on a leash, disciplined and controlled once they can walk to ensure they are tamed and aren’t “spoiled”).

If you said “false”, you probably subscribe to some version of the very Western doctrine of “original sin” and agree with Lord Acton that “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”—primarily because you also believe that the “correct” answer to the next question is “true”.

2. Candidates, employees and most other people are only as nice as they need to be to get what they want, and only until they’ve gotten it and feel they can get away with doing whatever else they want. In contrast to the traditional Japanese rosy view, Western thinking about human nature heavily leans toward this kind of dark-zone thinking, usually buttressed by numerous notions of “original sin”. There is, of course, the Bible as the prime source of this outlook.

[Note: My take on original sin is that it is the sin of causing the death of a savior who died for precisely that sin. Yes, I know this is illogical. But then is any “self-causation”, even of gods, logical?]

But to hammer the point home, we’ve also had stern spare-the rod-spoil-the-child Western Puritanism, Calvinism and 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (which portrayed life in a state of nature as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short—with at least “short” being an accurate characterization of our original state at birth).

If that were not enough, we’ve topped it all off with population theorist Thomas Malthus (“the struggle of all against all”); gloomy philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (whose very thick and gloomy writings about dark cosmic “Will” include The Pessimist’s Handbook); Charles Darwin (“the struggle for existence”), Herbert Spencer (“survival of the fittest”); Karl Marx (“class warfare” and exploitation of man by man); Sigmund Freud (narcissism, inherent irrationalism, savage “id” and death instincts); and, most recently, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins (“the selfish gene” as resident, inborn dictator and exploiter).

So, if you think the answer here is “true”, you’ve either read some or all of these sources or grown up in a culture where generations of others have.

One workplace consequence of believing this is true, if you are an employer, is that granting an employee or associate more and more power is likely to make you uncomfortable, despite whatever benefit you or your company may derive from it.

3. Job candidates, employees and other humans are inherently and mostly nice. Answering this one with “true” is pretty much equivalent to thinking #2 is false. Similarly, “false” here is equivalent to agreeing with #2.

The difference between this question and the previous one is that, from a purely observable behavioral, rather than “hidden” motivational perspective, these can both be true (however unlikely to both be false behaviorally or motivationally), since “nice” visible behavior does not presuppose “nice” unseen motives.

4. Not being nice is an abnormal condition, caused by negative influences on basic candidate/human niceness. This is a variation on the doctrine of original innocence and of early, more neutral Watsonian behaviorism that espoused the idea that infants are neither angels nor devils, instead being as plastic as putty that can be shaped however we wish. Avoid abnormal, negative conditioning and the child will turn out to be nice. if that’s what you want.

Hence, the same analysis as #3 applies here.

5. The nicest candidate or employee is someone whose most important needs have been met. If you think this is true, you’ll love (if you don’t already) the ideas of psychologist Abraham Maslow, who posited a “pyramid of needs”, built around the idea that before any of us can advance to “higher needs”, e.g., belongingness, self-actualization or “self-esteem”, we must have our basic “pre-potent” needs.

The latter include, among others, safety, food and shelter as needs to be satisfied as a precondition of moving up, becoming more complete, more fulfilled and happier. In the realm of management theory, this is what is called the “eupsychian management” model.

One practical corollary to this viewpoint is that if you want an employee or associate to be nice and productive, don’t frustrate any of his or her basic needs.

6. The nicest candidate or employee is someone who has some important need that is unsatisfied. If you agree with this, consider yourself a (closet) Freudian. Freud interpreted frustration as a catalyst, if not a necessary condition, for creativity and “sublimation” of dark instincts into socially acceptable, productive forms.

For example, on this view, someone with low “self-esteem” and an unsatisfied need for recognition or approval, would, in Maslow’s terms, be more, rather than less likely to be “nice”, much as a tough, violent criminal with no socially acceptable outlet for his aggression may find pro boxing very attractive, profitable and socially acceptable.

7. The nicest candidate or employee is someone who has a mix of met and unmet needs. “True” as your response means you probably subscribe (even unconsciously) to a theory midway between those of Freud and Maslow—pretty much in the position of Goldilocks sizing up the bowls of porridge and beds of the three bears.

8. “Nice” is an attribute of average or predicted candidate-behaviors, not of candidates’ themselves. If you agree, it suggests you believe that “nice” describes behavior, not individuals and their character or character traits.

This means that all that really matters in hiring and employment is observed and predictable nice behavior, irrespective of whether it is motivated by a desire to conform, to please, to be liked, to avoid criticism, to live up to one’s carefully chosen moral principles, to manipulate, etc.

If you disagree, you are likely to have a much stricter standard of “niceness” and require proof of character, in addition to nice behavior, as an extra guarantee of nice future workplace performance.

The problem with this is that, unless you can read minds, the only “proof” you can ever get is in the form of more behavior. Therefore, in practical terms, this means requiring much bigger samples of a candidate’s or employee’s behavior to conclude (s)he really is “nice”.

9. An isolated bit of candidate or employee behavior is never conclusive proof that the candidate is nice. To agree with this is to agree with the average mom who tells her kids not to accept candy or rides from strangers. If you disagree, you are either not a mom (or dad) or are really gullible.

10. Being nice is always fake, i.e., “all an act” or mindless conformity. If you believe this, those who disagree would argue that you should also believe in miracles, because it will be a miracle if you even have a concept of “nice” or one friend to prove you’re wrong.

Moreover, your critics would argue that this perspective is too simplistic, because it excludes all the people in the world who may be nice because they are temperamentally nice, morally reflective, have all of their needs met, have some basic need frustrated, have no negative influences on them or have acquired power they somehow choose to wisely and benevolently use.

11. You are nice. Of course you are.

Now prove it…

…to anyone who has read this article.

Read more in Interviewing

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).