“Can you make sure they are nice,” she said, with a nervous laughter.

I was surprised to hear this – working in a highly competitive and technical field, one does not get to hear much about how important virtues such as kindness can be. But I was intrigued. Recently, I moved to a new position that entailed working with senior leadership to recruit new talent for our ever-growing research team – and I had developed a voracious appetite to learn all I could about how to assemble an efficient and productive team.

On further probing, she mentioned how while working at her previous job, managers did not care much about the personality of the candidates, as long as they fulfilled the technical requirements of the job. This, as she elaborated through several grim stories, ended up being a much bigger problem for the organization than whether these new recruits were actually able to perform the tasks required of them. She narrated horrific tales of how hubris and miscommunication led to delay, and, in several cases, cancellation of projects – and loss of productivity and resources.

I wanted to know more about this aspect of bringing new people to the team, and wanted to learn from the best, so I researched what industry leaders from other sectors are doing about this, and whether such assertions have any effect on the labor market. Turns out, my associate was not wrong; in fact, she had zeroed-in at such a critical aspect of team-building that many recruiters and managers routinely overlook.

Elon Musk, known for his fastidiousness, has an explicit “no-assholes policy,” where he instructs his hiring managers to make sure they are recruiting candidates that not only excel in technical expertise, but also possess the ‘right attitude’ – this is one of the only ways, he says, that one can avoid making the workplace “miserable.”

And he’s not alone – Warren Buffet, a billionaire with an ingenious mind, recently mentioned how he values personality traits, over many other markers of a good candidate. And one does not have to think too hard about why this is such an important aspect of recruiting – according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), occupations with the highest job growth are invariably the ones that demand the virtues of the human element – personal care aides, nurses, medical assistants, cooks, and general managers.

So why do we still stress about outdated approaches to hiring new people? It seems that this approach is a remnant of our previous labor organization. During the industrial, and later the manufacturing era, great emphasis was laid on whether a person can work with machines – this required a sort of detachment from the social qualities we value otherwise. Indeed, one doesn’t have to like a machine in order to make it work. However, with increased automation, and now with machine learning and artificial intelligence taking center stage, the most important skill seems to be that which cannot be replaced by machines – kindness, compassion, and empathy.

One could argue: we can make machines learn those qualities as well; however, it remains to be seen if that can actually replace what humans seek. We have tried to assuage our social anxieties with increased utilization of social media – even at the expense of losing our privacy – but that has only worsened the mental health of our populations, causing increased depression and debilitating anxiety.

To promote values of virtue is not in any way to discount the importance of technical expertise in our teams; however, there are much better ways to evaluate technical know-how, and this aspect of recruiting gets a lot of focus anyway, in the form of official evaluations, certifications, and formal education. What is missing in this puzzle is a way to determine if candidates are truly passionate and whether they display a strong character, or are they paying lip-service to these qualities.

Also, we must frame this problem of devaluing essential human values in the workplace from a moral perspective. Who do we benefit when we suppress our future colleague’s emotional quotient? Many of my friends have confided in me how they have had to suppress their “niceness” at the workplace – lest they are labeled as a weak person and miss out on leadership roles in the future. 

If, as a society, we have reached a point in our socio-psychological behavior where our work culture inhibits individuals from exhibiting kind and virtuous conduct, then, we have failed as a society.

Lastly, we have always known – deep down, although we rarely admit to it – that people tend to work better in teams when team-members know each other personally, like each other, relate to each other, empathize with each other, help each other, support and respect each other – it is time to promote this quality for what it really is: an important productivity skill. 


  • Junaid Nabi

    Reader; writer.

    Junaid Nabi, MD, MPH, is a physician, public health researcher, and medical journalist. His research and implementation work examines national and international health care systems to develop strategic frameworks that can optimize care delivery and promote equity. His research in bioethics examines the integration of artificial intelligence in medical decision making systems and colonialism in global health. Previously, he undertook research that examined the effect of health disparities that arise from social and political disenfranchisement. Junaid aspires to creating equitable health care delivery systems that can meet the needs of every patient, at a place where the patient is, not where the system wants them to be.