How to Navigate the Niceness Paradox, Part 1

Confident businesswomanBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

“People working for me have loved me; peers have resented and hated me. For years, I was the top female executive in my area in a very male-dominated industry, but I’ve grown tired of trying to be someone I am not, just to be perceived on a personal level as favorably as my male counterparts. I’m in the process of leaving a corporate job and starting my 
own law firm due to this very reality.”

The anonymous quote above reveals that when it comes to leadership, women face a cultural conundrum. Studies show that when women adopt certain behaviors believed to be essential to successful leadership, they are evaluated more negatively than men. Women continue to be perceived as less qualified than men in most leadership roles.

For example, Northwestern University recently performed a meta-analysis incorporating studies from three different research paradigms to examine the cultural masculinity of leadership stereotypes. The analysis found that women are sometimes viewed as inappropriate or presumptuous when they engage in certain behaviors required by leadership positions. Previous research found that qualities such as being nice or compassionate are commonly associated with women, while qualities such as being assertive or competitive are associated with men.

Study co-author Alice Eagly comments on the implications of the study on Northwestern’s website: “Cultural stereotypes can make it seem that women do not have what it takes for important leadership roles, thereby adding to the barriers that women encounter in attaining roles that yield substantial power and authority.”

In a lecture to the Silicon Valley Thought Leadership Greenhouse, Deborah Gruenfeld of the Stanford Graduate School of Business noted a recent study in which students were asked to evaluate two identical versions of a case study about a venture capitalist, except one featured a woman and the other a man. As described on Stanford’s website:

“Students found the male and female versions to be equally competent and effective. However, when the students thought the venture capitalist was a woman they found her to be less genuine, humble, and kind and more power-hungry, self-promoting, and disingenuous. And the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her.”

The results of studies like these reflect an inherent paradox for women. When women are associated with leadership qualities that are considered more “male” (such as strength, decisiveness, competitiveness, and authoritativeness), they may be judged as “unlikeable.” Yet women who are viewed as more likeable by displaying qualities that are considered more “female” (such as friendliness, warmth, nurturing, and kindness) are sometimes considered less capable and competent leaders.

How can women navigate the “niceness paradox”? For a special two-part series, The Glass Hammer polled a group of 50 workplace thought leaders, as well as women in leadership roles across a variety of industries, for their expertise. The following strategies reflect the group’s top recommendations.

Always Be Professional

Being nice doesn’t mean you must always be agreeable, says Vickie Milazzo, author of Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman. It can mean delivering a difficult message from a place of professionalism rather than emotion or antagonism. “Women, even more than men, should have a consciousness about the way we express dissatisfaction and deliver tough messages,” Milazzo says.

In the balancing act between ‘nice ‘and ‘effective,’ Milazzo recommends that women opt for effectiveness over the need to be relatable. “Women who will do whatever it takes to be ‘one of them’ end up rendering their whole group ineffective,” she says. “Women have to know when to detach from the junk and from their emotional response to it.”

Lisa Quast, founder of Career Woman, Inc. agrees that given a choice of being seen as ‘nice’ versus ‘effective,’ she would choose ‘effective’ every time. “As a manager, my job is not to try to be everyone’s best friend; my job is to be their boss by helping them achieve their work goals and developing their careers so they can advance to higher levels,” Quast says. “Would any of my previous subordinates use the term ‘nice’ to describe me? Doubtful. But they would say they learned more from me than any other manager they’ve ever had.”

Anastasia Valentine CEO of marketing agency Sandbox PM and who previously held executive positions in the technology industry, emphasizes the importance of staying fact-based rather than emotion-based. “Operating on emotion or being nice to get into favor is a recipe for disaster or loss of respect,” Valentine says. “Yes we encounter bad days and challenging situations and people, but facts don’t lie. If you rely on facts as your foundation for your decisions and strategy, you can’t go wrong.”

Seek Respect, Not Social Reward

Women need to work on changing their behavior, attitudes, and expectations to be consistent with doing a good job rather than on being liked, says Marsha Firestone, founder and president of the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO). When you build a team that is actively involved in achieving the goals of the organization, the resulting professional collaboration and cohesiveness of that team can take the place of a need to be liked. “It is more important to be effective in the job you are doing than to alter the views of others,” Firestone says. “Women need to stop worrying about being liked and focus on being respected.”

J.P. Jones, owner of Paige1Media, has found maintaining a professional persona in the workplace to be the most effective way of walking the fine line between being nice and being effective. “For women in leadership positions, it’s important to remain reachable while at the same time letting your staff know exactly what you expect of them and the decorum you require on the job,” Jones says.

Nationally recognized workplace expert Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant and contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek, recently conducted some informal research via LinkedIn on being liked versus feared. Taylor describes this internal tug-of-war as “yo-yo-ing between being a power player and a pushover-pleaser.” From her research, she found that women are often not assertive enough and deploy inconsistency in their approach. The goal, she concluded, should be to find a happy medium that works.

“Because our culture teaches women not to be strong leaders, they have moments when they overcompensate by being overly aggressive, and other moments when they do not stand up for their beliefs,” Taylor says. “Women should not be concerned as much with being nice as they should be with being respected, pleasant, and courteous. If you seek to be liked by many, as if you are in a popularity contest, it is hard to win respect, get the job done, or pursue the larger good of the company.” She quotes a LinkedIn contributor who likens the situation to when a parent tells a child, “You may hate me now, but you’ll appreciate me later.”

Focus on Consistency and Fairness

One way to keep the focus on professionalism is to avoid the yo-yo-ing that Taylor describes, and develop the reputation for being consistent. When Tracy Brisson, founder and CEO of The Opportunities Project, was manager of a 20-person team, remaining consistent was the single most important thing she did to remain effective in her role. The results speak to the success of the strategy: Brisson received 100% satisfaction from her team on an HR survey of managerial effectiveness.

“People knew that my focus was on the work and supporting everyone who was doing it,” Brisson says. “When I had to take a more direct authoritative line, everyone knew what drove me, so no one thought I was unlikeable. Integrating the different facets of your personality and being consistent about it are key.”

Fairness and honesty are other areas to consider to help direct attention to your work rather than to the way you are perceived while you’re doing it. Nikki Gastineau Johnson, vice president of a property management company, suggests that focusing on being fair and honest shifts the burden away from always trying to ‘be nice’ and instead allows women to be perceived as objective and not self-serving. “If your employees and business associates know they can depend on you for fairness, they will recognize that your not-so-nice actions or words are not directed toward them, but rather are for the good of the company as a whole,” Johnson says.

Acknowledge the Other First

Xan Raskin was dubbed “Ms. Appropriate” for her approach to the niceness paradox. Raskin, who ran a division of the legal department at a Fortune
 500 global pharma company for 9 years and is now founder and president of Artixan Consulting Group, LLC, explains that the nickname arose through her practice of saying, “Thank you so much for bringing this issue to me. I’d be more than happy to help,” before sharing her advice with team members.

“Acknowledging the other person’s perspective, even when you don’t agree, can go a long way to maintaining the nice-effective balance,” Raskin says. “I learned that rather than just chiming in with my perspective at a meeting that might be contrary to what someone else had just said, I would make the other person comfortable by being nice to them first.” Raskin suggests that the successful balance comes through demonstrating that you are actively listening to the other person, and that you are providing your own thoughts and opinions in a way that will be well-received by others.

Pin It on the Mission

The more you focus solely on winning the transaction, the more disingenuous you risk coming across, says Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen. “Men can get away with this because men are expected to be guarded, strong, and given what we see about them in sports, we even forgive them their tantrums,” Goulston says. “Women are expected to be more inviting, loving, and warm and when they come off as strong, it can cause a disconnect.”

To get around this inequity, Goulston recommends that women position themselves as committed to a particular mission or opportunity. “If a woman can say to the people around her in a polite but determined way, ‘Do I have everyone’s permission to step in and respectfully but firmly prevent anything from derailing our mission, our group, and anyone in our group?’ then it will be very difficult for anyone to disagree with such a protective stance,” Goulston says.

Avoid Extremes

It’s important to find ways to keep a balanced approach in order to come across as both effective and accommodating, says Vivian Scott,
 author of Conflict Resolution at Work For Dummies.
 “Being too hard or too soft makes it easy for others to pigeonhole you,” Scott says.

To prevent this, Scott recommends deliberately focusing on both parties’ needs. “If you’re only worried about others’ needs, you may come off too nice, and being only concerned with what you want may be viewed as arrogant,” she says. She also recommends saying what you really mean rather than dancing around it: “Using vague language or taking a wimpy stance as a way to soften a message only plays into that ‘nice, but ineffective’ perception.”

Taylor agrees that balance is key to navigating the tricky waters of the niceness paradox. She suggests that women find a way to play the game without reverting to being a power player. “If you are pleasant and can motivate or inspire others, than you have the winning formula,” Taylor says. “The quote ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’ might be altered in this case to ‘Speak firmly and carry a big stick.’”

Rhonda Rhyne, consultant and author of the soon-to-be released book The Bitch & The Glass Ceiling: Shatter Through with Respect-Centric Leadership, comments on the needed balancing act: “Women need to optimize their natural feminine qualities, such as caring, warmth, and respect, while developing yet regulating masculine traits (concise, decisive, command-and-control) that are essential but left unbridled can lead to lacerations, hemorrhaging, and that God-awful moniker, bitch.

This discussion continues in Part 2 of this series.