The Nice/Smart Matrix

As anyone who provides a service knows, clients can be a pain. While working for my Worst Client Ever, I tried to figure out what made these folks exponentially more challenging than the others. Their fatal flaw, I concluded – and I’m talking about their whole team, not just one jerk – was that they added no value.  They were neither nice nor smart. That day a new theory of human worthiness was born for my colleagues and me, and I’ve found it applies far beyond the workplace.

Our first choice, of course, is to surround ourselves with those who are both thoughtful and intelligent. Smart folks tend to contribute more valuable insight, advice, and results than do the less smart among us. They expose us to new ideas, they challenge our thinking, and they make us better at whatever we’re trying to do. We’d also take the nice guy over the not-nice one. No one enjoys dealing with a colleague, client, or neighbor who’s mean, inconsiderate, or rude, and nearly everyone appreciates caring and consideration.

nice-smart graphic

But we don’t all fit in the Nice/Smart box and, as always, there are tradeoffs. I’m happy to work with those who are smart but a bit socially clueless (Not-Nice/Smart). Their insightful analysis or creative solutions help move a project, or a client’s business, forward. Many super-achievers, like Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, might be found in this quadrant. Of course if their not-niceness is extreme, their personality issues may negatively impact the usefulness of their work and their recommendations. In those situations a Nice/Not-Smart team member might play a schmoozing role to compensate for colleagues who lack skills in managing relationships. Both these types add value, and we benefit from and appreciate their contributions.

All of us love people who are Nice/Not-Smart. While they may not be the ones we choose to debate world issues or discuss literature and philosophy, they’re often our favorite lunch dates, golf buddies, soccer mom friends, or board member colleagues, not to mention cherished family members. Similarly Not-Nice/Smart folks help make our town and school boards more effective or keep us current on issues or provide helpful advice in their areas of expertise.

Then there are those in the Not-Nice/Not-Smart quadrant. What about them, you ask? They make us miserable. They cause stress, bad decisions, unfortunate results, needless pain and suffering. We dread dealing with them, and they likely need more help than we can give them as friends or colleagues. Unless the relationship is one in which recommending counseling is constructive and appropriate, they are best avoided.  My Not-Nice/Not-Smart clients wasted time and money and wound up with a weaker plan because they lacked both people skills and judgment.

So that’s my handy tool for understanding who is worth your time, and why.  When someone drives you crazy you can use the matrix to understand what value he or she brings to the party. If you’re fortunate, you’ll realize that most of your contacts fall into the Nice/Smart quadrant, and those who don’t provide beneficial insight (smart) or needed diplomacy (nice). If you’re not so lucky you can at least identify the Not-Nice/Not–Smart folks more quickly. And run.