Don't be a jerk: Why kindness is the key to success in tech

From the Career Conversations Series with Jean, Founder of Exaltitude
December 6, 2022
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The tech industry is often criticized for its toxic culture, which tells you that to succeed, it's necessary—and okay—even encouraged to be aggressive. We’re not rude; we're just honest. Many put down others to be more "productive" or give "honest feedback," but there is a difference between constructive feedback and rude comments. Treating someone unkindly chips away their self-esteem and prevents them from achieving their best work. The problem with this toxic culture is that it encourages us to be hostile towards or disrespect others to prove our value. It makes us believe we need to tear down others to be the best we can be because we’re right and they’re wrong. In reality, though, kindness is far better than rudeness. Empathy and compassion are powerful tools in the workplace, and being nice goes a long way.

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Our article "Gratitude is a secret weapon for attracting more opportunities" Ranked #26 on Hackernews front page on 11/23/22, with 13,000+ views in 3 days.

After reading close to 100 comments on Hackernews, I started thinking: What about the tech community that makes people believe kindness is fakery? Why are people in tech so resistant to kindness?

Kindness vs. Passive aggressiveness

It's shocking to see how many people confuse kindness with passive aggressiveness. Unfortunately, there here are some truly "evil" people in the world, the ones that manipulate others with fake niceness to get what they want. Research shows that 2-4% of the population is psychopaths, a small percentage to account for the malicious people you encounter daily. Take an inventory of the people in your life. If you feel like there are over 4% of people who are faking kindness regularly, ask yourself if you're too critical of others.

But let's be clear that when we say "be kind," it doesn't mean “manipulate others by being fake.”

Kindness is genuine empathy, compassion, understanding, and interest in others. It's different from fake "niceness." Genuine kindness is not disingenuous or manipulative. Being kind is about uplifting others and helping them to succeed. When we are kind, we don't criticize others or say hurtful things to get ahead. Or be nice in front of them and stab them in the back. Instead, we treat others with respect, with or without their company.

Let's be honest. You're not Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was known for his harsh feedback toward others, but he was an exception - not the rule. The truth is that many ordinary people who are rude and abrasive aren't respected or successful. Instead, they turn people off and make them want to avoid interacting with you. Steve Jobs only got away with it because, well, he's Steve Jobs. He didn't succeed BECAUSE he was rude. He was successful and also happened to be rude.

Tech companies often favor brilliant assholes over kind people.

Many tech companies reward rude and abrasive over kind. The thinking is that these "brilliant assholes" are more likely to succeed because they're willing to push others to get shit done. But a brilliant asshole may not be as successful as thought - after all, Steve Jobs was a genius, but he was also a jerk.

Sure, you can push others around and get away with being an asshole - but for how long? People will start rejecting your cruelty and rudeness at some point, especially if they don't like working with you.

Meritocracy is a myth

We live in an age where meritocracy is touted as the gold standard for success. But how can we truly say that the tech world is meritocratic?

How do you measure the output of an engineer?

Everyone can count exactly what you produce if you work for a farm or factory. You produced X pounds of crop or Y number of parts. 

As an engineer, our outputs are highly subjective. You can't count the number of lines of code or the hours you put in to judge your work. We come up with metrics to measure our work, but even the metrics are determined by someone. Even data can be subjective.

You can look at your co-workers' output and compare their results to yours. But does that make it meritocratic? What about other engineers from different companies? What about engineers with less experience working hard but learning every day? Is there an absolute metric for determining engineering excellence?

Confidence vs. Competence

In the tech world, you can't measure merit with numbers and data, so we measure it by the confidence of our voices. ‍People with loud voices win in toxic work environments.

When someone sounds so confident, our mind wants to believe that they must also be competent. But confidence is not a direct sign or measure of competence.

If you're confident, it doesn't mean you're good at what you do. And if you're not confident, it also doesn't mean that you suck and shouldn't be in this field. We need to keep confidence distinct from competence. Loud people aren't always the best or brightest.

Toxic positivity vs. toxic tech culture

Being kind is not a sign of manipulation or lack of competence - on the contrary, it's a powerful skill that can help you succeed in the tech industry.

Embracing kindness is different from toxic positivity. It doesn't mean you need to avoid bad feelings. If you feel sad or bad, it's okay to embrace these feelings. But don't take it out on other people.

If you must be rude to be honest or your authentic self, it's time to evaluate your ability to communicate with others. Rude communication is a sign of weakness and insecurity, not strength.

We need to stop equating rudeness with brilliance and honesty because it's a toxic work culture that has us believing this fallacy. By refusing to be kind, you're only hurting yourself and closing yourself off.

Constructive feedback vs. criticism

There is nothing wrong with giving someone constructive feedback or pointing out mistakes. But there are better ways to get your point across than being aggressive.

When you lash out at others, you do nothing but push them away from you and make them feel bad about themselves. They may fear interacting with you or even working with you altogether.

Being rude doesn't prove that you're right or get others to change their opinions. You can only be effective if your message is clear and approached with kindness, not aggression.

Sometimes your "constructive feedback" is just your opinion. If someone doesn't agree with you, that doesn't mean they are wrong. Getting your opinion across is great; shouting at others to make them agree with you isn't.

In the tech world today, we place too much value on confidence and self-belief - often at the expense of others. But we need to recognize that kindness and compassion are powerful tools that can help us succeed, not hinder us.

We open ourselves up to new opportunities and possibilities by embracing kindness in our work lives. We become better communicators and collaborators, forging stronger relationships with our co-workers and clients alike.

So let's stop equating rudeness with brilliance and honesty - a toxic work culture has us believing this fallacy. Instead, let's embrace kindness as an essential element of success in tech, one that will help us build stronger professional relationships, achieve more as individuals, and ultimately succeed in our field.

How to be kind while also being honest and authentic

Practice self-awareness: being kind doesn't mean blindly suppressing negative emotions. Tune into your feelings and learn how to process them in healthy ways.

Refuse to engage in harmful behaviors: don't gossip, backstab, or play politics with your co-workers. Don't encourage others to engage in these behaviors, either.

Communicate with tact: there's a difference between being nice and being honest. You can still be kind while telling someone they need to improve. Share what you're thinking and feeling without being a jerk, meaning don't talk down to people. Think before you communicate.

Genuinely care about the people around you: take an interest in their lives and what they're working on, even if it's unrelated to your work.

When you embrace kindness as a way of being, you will find yourself more comfortable with your work and the people around you. 

So why is kindness more powerful than rudeness?

First and foremost, it's simply nicer. Treating others with compassion and understanding makes them more likely to reciprocate and be open to what you have to say.

But beyond that, being kind also has practical benefits in the workplace. It enables better communication and collaboration, leading to stronger work relationships and improved productivity and efficiency.

As long as we believe that being rude is the road to success, people will continue to be hurt and pushed aside, fostering a toxic work environment. But if we can change that narrative, we can move toward a kinder, more respectful culture where everyone succeeds - not just the loudest voices. And that is a goal worth fighting for.


Let's choose kindness over rudeness - because it actually makes us better professionals and helps us achieve our goals. By rejecting the toxic culture of rudeness and aggression in tech, we can create a more collaborative and supportive environment for everyone. And that's something we should all be working toward.

  • In the tech industry, being rude and abrasive to others is common. This toxic culture encourages us to disrespect others in the disguise of honesty.
  • Being kind doesn't make you weak or fake - on the contrary, it's a strength that can help you succeed professionally.
  • Kindness and empathy enable better communication and collaboration, leading to stronger work relationships and improved productivity and efficiency.
  • Let's stop equating rudeness with brilliance and honesty - it's a toxic work culture that only hurts everyone involved.

If you’re interested in more lessons on kindness, follow Exaltitude on LinkedIn for upcoming Career Conversation workshops.

Exaltitude newsletter is packed with advice for navigating your engineering career journey successfully. Sign up to stay tuned!

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