“Nice guys finish last”

That phrase has shaped cultures that have played out in the workplace, on sports fields and even in many personal dealings.

It was coined in 1969 by Leo Durocher, the fiery baseball manager at Chicago Cubs, defending his team’s style of play as the very manner in which they had accumulated a big lead in the closing weeks of the season.

However, a new study by David Bodanis published in his book, “The Art of Fairness”, might suggest that managers and leaders who can apply decency and fairness alongside tight management practices will prevail.


Can we be more profitable by being nice?

Bodanis shares many examples which show how managers can use decency in business to win in the same way that it does in life.

Paul Starrett

The man who built the Empire State Building in just 13 months (including the demolition of the 1,300 bedroom hotel previously on the site) did so by paying wages comfortably above the going rate to reduce staff turnover. He introduced health and safety standards way above the current norms and allowed workers to make suggestions that improved the works.

However, he mixed his engaging style with sharp business sense. He knew well-paid and engaged staff were productive and his approach increased speed and reduced overall cost. He employed accountants to check materials and attendance but had few problems.

Satya Nadella

The previous CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, was known for his aggressive style. Stories would abound of his ruthless approach and under him Microsoft was successful but stagnant and fell behind the curve as computing moved to services. It was losing its place in the market and as a place for talent to go to work.

He was replaced by Satya Nadella who promised reform and a leadership approach that would give staff more responsibility for taking the company back to the top.

On the day the handover was announced Microsoft shares jumped 7.5% - a rise worth billions of dollars. Mr Nadella’s approach also briefly regain its title of the world’s most valuable company.

Eddie Rickenbacker

A pioneer of American aviation who built Eastern Air Travel into a profitable airline by granting staff good contracts, profit shares, pensions and a say in how things work.

He was sharp too. Understanding that the real challenge with an airline was momentum – keeping planes full and moving was how to make them profitable.

He sold the business to Frank Lorenzo in the 1980’s. Lorenzo saw staff practices gestures as ‘fat’ that could be cut out. The mutiny he caused descended into strikes and the airline went bust.


Is there a right way to use fairness as a manager or leader?

It’s never for us to tell you how to build the culture you want in your workplace.

However, it is always for us to show managers how their actions affect their results. All employers must always realise that they are in a marketplace for staff and that being good at managing and engaging those people is one of the biggest factors in their success, growth and profitability.

The future of productivity is going to be in mixing people with technology. But then, when wasn’t that the case? You wouldn’t treat your machines like people. Treating your people like machines will almost certainly prove to be just as expensive.


So does ruling by fear ever work?

Leo Durocher’s example at Chicago Cubs shows how it nearly always plays out.

Durocher’s cynical style worked for a while. However, his big lead that season crumbled as both his alienated players and the sport’s ruling bodies took action against him, and the Cubs failed to make the World Series. Despite leaving us with the quote, in his own case the nasty guy finished behind.

You can make fear work in the short term. But people will always find a way to play you in the long term and that will certainly not involve giving you their best work or ideas. Or they’ll just leave. If you’re a manager or leader that’s your responsibility.


Further information 

Organisational Leadership Skills