Shark Tank’s Justification Against Being Nice


My wife and I recently discovered the show Shark Tank. For business-minded television viewers, this show offers a unique perspective on establishing a business, developing a product, and pitching it to prospective investors. For reality show viewers, it offers the chance to see a bunch of millionaires berate fledgling entrepreneurs.

On Shark Tank real-life business owners pitch the opportunity to invest in their idea to the “sharks in the tank” – real-life titans of industry. In the pitch, the individual presents their idea and business plan. When it goes well, the sharks have a bidding war to see who can invest in the idea. When it does not go well, they pepper the contender with concerns about the quality of the product, accuracy of the projected profitability, and his/her leadership abilities.

Last week I watched a guy who was unable to give a straight answer. Even when told to give a “yes” or “no,” he dodged the simple response. Passing on this opportunity may have been a simple decision for the sharks except for the fact that he was pitching a great product with incredible potential. Finally, one of the sharks said, “I like what you’re selling but I can’t trust a person who will not answer questions. Therefore, I’m willing to invest, but my first order of business will be to fire you.”

This may sound harsh, but is there a place for honesty OR has society’s pressures to be nice, muted our ability to provide candid feedback? Research says that nice-ness may be overrated.

A study from the Journal of Personality found that highly agreeable people are more oriented to cause harm than those rated less amiable. Recreating Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiment where he tested participants’ willingness to deliver painful electric shocks to strangers, these researchers took the participants’ personality traits into account. They found that “conscientiousness” and “agreeableness” were associated with a significantly greater willingness to administer higher-intensity electric shocks.

If you are surprised that being nice can be a bad thing, consider this: nice people are more determined to obey rules. They are less likely to dissent. And they may be more concerned with pleasing other people than in doing the right thing.

“But I’m a nice person,” you may be thinking. That may be true, but let’s not confuse being “nice” with being “virtuous.” The sharks on Shark Tank are not mean for the sake of mean. They do not purposely hurt feelings, incite anger, or create self-doubt about how you’ve spent the better part of a decade. As stated by Adam Grant, author of the book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,

[Disagreeable people] are the people who are willing to give you the critical feedback that you don’t want to hear — but you need to hear.

You can make decisions based on being liked or on doing the right thing. Once you choose, it will be the basis for how you lead. There are advantages of airing towards doing the right thing:

You will be more transparent. The rationale behind your decisions will be more easily understood, versus niceness which lends itself to an insincere veneer.

You will be fair. Your input will help people develop and grow versus letting them flounder and repeat mistakes, versus niceness which is focused on others feeling good.

You will yield long-term credibility. When you speak, others will know that good or bad, you are telling the truth.

We need to be the leaders willing to say the unpopular truths. Who don’t sugarcoat the facts. Who are more interested in making the team better than in sparing feelings. Who are not so much nice as they are respectful and courteous. This is not brutal honesty, it is simply honesty.

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