Book Excerpt: The Power of Nice

Chapter 1 - The Power of Nice
By Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval
For years, we have loved a particular security guard in our Manhattan office building. In fact, most of us at The Kaplan Thaler Group think the world of him. A large, jovial man in his mid-f


ifties, Frank brightens people’s days by giving everyone who walks into our building a huge, warm greeting. “Hello, Linda!” “Hello, Robin!” he’ll say. “Happy Friday!”

Frank’s engaging banter changed the way we started work in the morning. Instead of simply flashing our passes anonymously and making a beeline for the elevator, we found ourselves seeking out Frank and making sure to say hello. He set a positive tone for the entire day. But we never considered how Frank might be helping our business, other than preventing intruders from entering the premises.

That is, until the day Richard Davis, the president and COO of U.S. Bank, the sixth-largest bank in the United States, came to see us. For months, our entire team at The Kaplan Thaler Group had been working to create a pitch that would wow Davis and win us the huge U.S. Bank account.

At the time of Davis’s visit, it was down to the wire. We were one of two agencies still in the running for the account. Davis and his team were flying in from their executive offices in Minneapolis to meet personally with us. We didn’t realize it at the time, but in fact Davis and his staff were a bit apprehensive about the kind of treatment they’d get in New York City. The furious pace and hard-bitten “out of my way” attitude of the Big Apple had become part of the mythology of the city. They were afraid we would be too cold, too aloof.

But when Richard Davis and his team walked into our building, they received a warm, enthusiastic greeting from Frank. When Davis reached our offices a few minutes later, he was gushing about the friendly security guard. “This guy gave me a huge hello!” he said. “And all of a sudden, I thought how could I not want to work with a company that has someone like Frank? How can I feel anything but good about hiring an agency like that?” We won the account.

Of course, Davis wouldn’t have awarded us the job if he wasn’t impressed with our work. But we’ve gotta give Frank credit. With a multimillion-dollar account in the balance, it was Frank’s warm hello that helped us cinch the deal.

That is the power of nice.

The security guard wins the heart of the COO. It might sound like a Disney movie, but we can assure you it was no fantasy. We wrote The Power of Nice because we completely disagreed with the conventional wisdom that “Nice guys finish last” and “No good deed goes unpunished.” Our culture has helped to propagate the myth of social Darwinism-of survival of the fittest-that the cutthroat “me vs. you” philosophy wins the day. One of the biggest-selling career books in the past few years is called Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. Yet this completely contradicts the way we have run our business and our lives. In less than a decade, we built The Kaplan Thaler Group into a powerhouse in advertising with close to $1 billion in billings, making it one of the nation’s fastest-growing advertising agencies. Our success was won not with pitchforks and spears, but with flowers and chocolates. Our growth is the result not of fear and intimidation, but of smiles and compliments.

Time and time again, we have seen the extraordinary power of nice in our business dealings and in our personal lives. It is the patient passenger who politely asks the airline ticket agent to please check one more time who gets the first-class upgrade, rather than the “I’m a triple platinum member” blowhard. It is the driver who is polite and apologetic to the police officer who sometimes is forgiven for driving over the speed limit.

But nice has an image problem. Nice gets no respect. To be labeled “nice” usually means the other person has little else positive to say about you. To be nice is to be considered Pollyanna and passive, wimpy, and Milquetoast. Let us be clear: Nice is not naive. Nice does not mean smiling blandly while others walk all over you. Nice does not mean being a doormat. In fact, we would argue that nice is the toughest four-letter word you’ll ever hear. It means moving forward with the clear-eyed confidence that comes from knowing that being very nice and placing other people’s needs on the same level as your own will get you everything you want.

Think about it:

Nice is luckier in love. People who are low-key and congenial have one-half the divorce rate of the general population, says a University of Toronto study.

Nice makes more money. According to Professor Daniel Goleman, who conducted research on how emotions affect the workplace for his book Primal Leadership, there is a direct correlation between employee morale and the bottom line. One study found that every 2 percent increase in the service climate—that is, the general cheerfulness and helpfulness of the staff—saw a 1 percent increase in revenue.

Nice is healthier. A University of Michigan study found that older Americans who provide support to others—either through volunteer work or simply by being a good friend and neighbor—had a 60 percent lower rate of premature death than their unhelpful peers.

Nice spends less time in court. One study found that doctors who had never been sued spoke to their patients for an average of three minutes longer than physicians who had been sued twice or more, reports Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

It is often the small kindnesses—the smiles, gestures, compliments, favors—that make our day and can even change our lives. Whether you are leading your own company, running for president of the PTA, or just trying to conduct a civil conversation with your teenage daughter, the power of nice will help you break through the misconceptions that keep you from achieving your goals.

The power of nice will help you to open doors, improve your relationships at work and at home, and let you sleep a whole lot better. Nice not only finishes first; those who use its nurturing power wind up happier, to boot! In the chapters ahead, we’ll show you that being nice doesn’t mean sacrificing what you want for someone else. There’s always a second, third, or even fourth solution when you apply the principles of nice.

The Power of Nice Principle #1

Positive impressions are like seeds.

Every time you smile at a messenger, laugh at a coworker’s joke, thank an assistant, or treat a stranger with graciousness and respect, you throw off positive energy. That energy makes an impression on the other person that, in turn, is passed along to and imprinted on the myriad others he or she meets. Such imprints have a multiplier effect. And ultimately, those favorable impressions find their way back to you. That doesn’t mean the waiter you tipped well will one day found a Fortune 100 company and offer you stock options (unless it was one hell of a tip). The results of the power of nice are rarely that direct. In fact, you may not notice any impact on your life for years, apart from the warm glow it gives you inside. Nonetheless, we have found that the power of nice has a domino effect. You may not ever be able to trace your good fortune back to a specific encounter, but it is a mathematical certainty that the power of nice lays the groundwork for many opportunities down the road. These positive impressions are like seeds. You plant them and forget about them, but underneath the surface, they’re growing and expanding, often exponentially.

Here’s an example of how the power of nice has worked for us. Not long ago, we featured Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, in an Aflac commercial, at the suggestion of Aflac chairman and CEO Daniel Amos. We gave Mrs. Trump, as one of the stars of the commercial, her own trailer and made sure she was comfortable and had everything she needed. Our team treated her nicely not because she was married to a famous person but because we have a policy of being polite and respectful to all the talent on our advertising shoots.

Months later, the producers of The Apprentice asked Linda to be a judge on one of the shows, in which the apprentice hopefuls were required to create a car advertisement:

Before the first segment was shot, I introduced myself to Donald Trump, mentioning that we were the agency that had used his wife in an Aflac duck commercial. Well, Trump clearly remembered his wife’s experience, because right before the shooting started, he leaned over and said, “You were so nice to my wife. Watch how I return the favor. ”

Then he got on and described The Kaplan Thaler Group as one of the hottest ad agencies in the country—on network television! He then went out of his way to include me in the on-camera discussions. All because we were nice to his wife.

The Power of Nice Principle #2

You never know.

OK, you’re thinking. So it pays to be nice to Donald Trump’s wife. But we’re all smart enough to cooperate with the important people in our lives—the people we interact with often, like neighbors and coworkers, and the people involved in important transactions, such as mortgage brokers and prospective employers. We’re much less likely, however, to worry about, say, a stranger whom we’ll never see again. Too often, our thinking is “What does it matter?”

Diane Karnett certainly never thought the young woman she met on a train home to New York City would transform her life. The woman was visiting her grandmother, who happened to live in Diane’s neighborhood, so they split a cab ride home. When they arrived at the grandmother’s apartment, the woman asked Diane if she’d help her carry her bags up to the fifth-floor walk-up.

“I figured why not?” But by the time they reached the fourth floor, she could think of many reasons why not.

The woman’s eighty-five-year-old grandmother turned out to be an ex–Ziegfeld showgirl named Millie Darling, who befriended Diane and showed her New York as she had never known it. “Through the years, I was treated like royalty at her favorite jazz clubs and saloons,” says Diane.

That would have been more than enough reward for lugging a few bags up several flights of stairs. But it turns out Millie was the mother of Chan Parker, widow of the legendary jazz great Charlie Parker. When Diane was unemployed, Chan invited Diane to live with her in her farmhouse outside of Paris. Diane accepted and told her former employer about her move. They said that since she was moving to Paris anyway, why not set up shop and run a coventure for them there? Diane remained in Paris for four glorious years, spending weekends at Chan Parker’s farmhouse, socializing with Chan’s fabulous and fascinating visitors—jazz legends, journalists, even Clint Eastwood. “I could have let that stranger on the train carry her own bags up. And missed it all,” says Diane.

When we meet strangers on the street, we usually assume they aren’t important to us. Unlike our friend Diane, we often avoid contact with the woman sitting next to us on the train or maybe even race ahead to beat her to a cab as we exit the station. The thinking is, “She’s just some woman who has nothing to with my life. Getting the cab is more important than being nice to her.”

But how do you know that? This woman could be the sister of your boss. Or a Realtor who knows of a home in your dream neighborhood. Or the head of a foundation that could give your fledgling charity the backing it desperately needs. The bottom line is, this woman is important to many people. You have to treat everyone you meet as if they are the most important person in the world—because they are. If not to you, then to someone; and if not today, then perhaps tomorrow.

Principle #3

The Power of Nice Principle #3

People change.

One common mistake people make is assuming that you only have to be nice to your peers and their superiors. There’s no need to be nice to an assistant or receptionist, much less a security guard or a cleaning person. After all, they can’t do anything for you—they have no power.

That may or may not be true—now. But you have no idea who might become quite important to you ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. A few years ago, we received a call from a woman who we thought was looking for work. We offered to meet with her, just because. As it turned out, she wasn’t looking for a job—she was looking for an agency to create advertising for two huge pieces of business she was heading up. It was a project that was worth millions of dollars to the agency. Why had she picked us? Twenty-five years before, she had worked with Linda, who had shown her great kindness and respect despite her junior status at the company. More than two decades later, we ended up winning $40 million of new business because one of us had been kind to someone starting out in the advertising business. That is the power of nice.

The Power of Nice Principle #4

Nice must be automatic.

A friend recently told us the story of three consulting companies vying for a very large contract. One was summarily dropped, even though the firm did a terrific presentation.

Why? they wondered. It turned out that when the prospective client arrived at the airport, an executive from one of the consulting firms neglected to help with her bags. He lost the contract right there. She was miffed at his rudeness and lack of manners, and decided that she didn’t want to do business with them. Here their team had worked day and night to give the client a knockout presentation, and the entire account was lost over a suitcase.

The negligent executive certainly knew the client was a VIP. So why didn’t he pick up the bag? Simple: He wasn’t skilled in the art of being nice. If it had been part of the way he treated everyone, the oversight never would have occurred. Picking up the bag for the client would have been second nature, instead of a once-in-a-while gesture granted only to clients and bosses and other important people. He would have understood that such small gestures and actions can have an enormous impact.

The Power of Nice Principle #5

Negative impressions are like germs.

Whenever you’re aloof to someone who you think “doesn’t matter,” people unconsciously, react to that. You might get a better table if you scream at a waitress for service, but we can assure you that your date will silently be saying, “Check, please. ” Just as positive actions are like seeds, rude gestures and remarks are like germs—you may not see the impact they have on you for a while, but they are there, silently infecting you and everyone around you.

Not spreading germs means being extremely conscientious about your environment and the people around you. Because even a simple misunderstanding can create a negative impression, as Robin recently discovered:

Claire and I were up all night preparing a presentation for aclient. One of the slides kept going in upside down. We were tearingour hair out trying to get it right—it seemed to have a mind of itsown. But we finally got it to work, and everyone went home.

The next day, during this presentation in a huge conference roomfor a lot of people, the devil slide popped onto the screen—upsidedown!

I said, “Oh my God, Claire. It’s wrong again.”

Of course, Claire knew that I was just sharing a secret joke between us—but no one else did. Everyone else thought that I had just chastised her publicly, and it created a lot of negative feeling in the room. In fact, we nearly lost the business it took months to pitch. We made light of the situation and explained what had just transpired, but it was a good lesson to us: Impressions are in the eye of the beholder, and one bad impression can infect everything else you do.

The Power of Nice Principle #6

You will know.

Even if you never see a person you have treated badly again, even if no one sees or knows of your rudeness or bad behavior, you will know. It will be in your mind and heart when you walk into a meeting and try to convince the people in the room that they should put their faith in you. Because you won’t believe in yourself, you could jeopardize the outcome of a meeting or relationship.

The power of nice is not about running around manically smiling and doing everyone’s bidding, all the while calculating what you’ll get in return. It’s not about being phony or manipulative. It’s about valuing niceness—in yourself and in others—the same way you respect intelligence, beauty, or talent. Niceness is a powerful force. In fact, it can literally save your life.

Let us consider an example, Susan. Eight years ago, Susan received a letter from an old friend, Helen. Helen’s niece was a severe anorexic; she was going to die unless she received intensive treatment in an expensive clinic thousands of miles from their home. The program cost, however, was way beyond the family’s budget, given that the father was unemployed and had health problems of his own. So the family sent out a letter to family members and other friends, requesting money.

Susan was both moved and a little surprised, because people, even relatives, rarely ask for help so overtly. With three kids of her own, it was hard for Susan and her husband to decide how much to give. “We ended up sending $500—which seemed like too little and, simultaneously, way too much for us,” says Susan.

But others responded generously as well. The girl was admitted into a program for treatment and survived. “Without the letter they sent, she would not have made it,” says Susan. Three years later, Susan’s husband lost his job. He also suffered severe health problems. His unemployment period stretched out well over a year, and Susan’s family was forced to live on savings that quickly disappeared. Even though Susan was working, they were getting very frightened about their financial situation.

Then one day a card arrived in the mail from a woman that Susan didn’t know. She was Helen’s mother, the anorexic girl’s grandmother. She wrote that she had heard that Susan and her husband were going through a “rough patch,” and that she wanted to help out. She went on to write that she knew what it was like to have financial difficulties. “This amazing woman who had raised three children on her own working in low-paying service jobs sent us a check for $2,000,” said Susan.

When you truly understand the full power of nice, you realize that by treating others with kindness, respect, and generosity, your actions get paid back in one way or another—with interest.

Now you have the principles that can help you transform your life. In the next chapters, we’ll give you the tools you need to start making the power of nice work for you.


Every day for the next week, do five nice things that have no immediate payoff for you. Say thank you to others. Ask those you meet about their lives. Does your cleaning woman have grandchildren? Donate money to charity. Compliment a stranger.

The point of this is not to imagine that the cabdriver you are generously tipping will someday run a major corporation. It is to simply get into the habit of being nice—and rediscover how good that makes you feel.



Most of us don’t mean to be inconsiderate. We’re just so busy starring in our own movie that we forget that everyone else is starring in theirs. That’s why it’s extremely important to see yourself as others do—as the supporting actor in their movie. So do an inventory of all the people in your life, and ask yourself what kind of character you’d play in their movie. Are you the loving, doting grown daughter or the distracted, absentee one? The sweet, supportive boyfriend or the needy, selfish one? The office troubleshooter or the drama queen? For each relationship, write down five ways that you can make your “character” more sympathetic.


Do you admire people who do volunteer work? Who reach out to family members and make plans to do things together? Who admire and mentor others at work? Who ask about and remember the details of the lives of clients and colleagues? Answer this question: If I were a better person, I would . . .

Try to model your behavior on that of the person you would like to be.

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