I live in the south where being nice is often an art form that is highly valued (See: “Bless your heart…”). From a very early age, kids are expected to “be nice” and “play nice”. We still hold doors open for strangers. Still say “hello” to nearly everyone we pass on the street. Still say “yes ma’am” and call our elders “Miss [first name] or Mr. [first name].” Being nice is an excellent trait to teach out kids and demonstrate as an adult but it should not be confused with another valuable character trait: kindness.
When it comes to professional settings, being kind is often a much better approach than being nice. This article from Fast Company points out some important ideas. Being nice often manifests itself when people want colleagues to like them. Being kind means telling someone the truth, even (or especially) if it is hard for the other person to hear.
Being nice is when you gloss over a challenge, try to help cover it up, or cover for the individual that needs to make a change. Being kind means telling someone a hard truth and then holding them accountable for making the necessary changes. This is a critical skill for leaders.
Being nice may help getting people to like you. Being kind will help people respect you. This is a crucial difference for leaders.
Empowering a workplace to value kindness over niceness requires hard work and discipline. Being kind by speaking truth requires a tremendous amount of trust between colleagues. It also requires that individuals learn to not take feedback personally. Being kind shows respect for the work done by others and others show you respect for the work that you do.