How to Navigate the Niceness Paradox, Part 2

Businesswoman in Gray Dress Isolated on WhiteBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

“‘Nice’ has never really been the word to describe me in 
the workplace. However, I do think I am an effective leader. I honestly 
don’t know if being ‘nice’ would have gotten me further along more quickly 
or not. Sometimes I think it might have.”

-Nikki Gastineau Johnson, Vice President

As the quote above reflects, women sometimes feel conflicted about being ‘nice’ versus ‘effective’ in the workplace. Studies show that when women adopt more assertive behaviors believed to be essential to successful leadership, they are evaluated more negatively than men. (See “How to Navigate the Niceness Paradox: Part 1.”)

The Glass Hammer continues with Part 2 of a special series on how women can navigate the “niceness paradox.” For this series, we 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 are a continuation of the group’s top recommendations.

Balance “Relate” and “Require”

A healthy blend of both “relating” and “requiring” skills are necessary for workplace effectiveness, says Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better. Relating skills include asking, listening, including, coaching, and encouraging, while requiring skills include creating expectations, focusing on goals, setting controls, asserting views, and confronting problems.

Leigh says that both women and men can stumble professionally if they lean on one of these skill sets more than the other. “Women may not be able to avoid the niceness paradox completely, because some find it uncomfortable to see women engaged in requiring skills.” Former CEO at Hewitt Associates Peter Friedes points out that women often believe that they become less nice when they use requiring skills.

Tom Cox, managing consultant of Cox Business Consulting, also emphasizes the relate/require balance. He says that to negate the paradox, you need to push both sides at once. “You want
 enough of a relationship that people care about making you happy, and you want to be requiring 
enough that you push people out of their comfort zones,” Cox says. He also suggests that women stop seeing the dual options as a paradox. “You don’t become more demanding by being less of a relater,” he says. “Hold your ground on relating, or even increase it.”

Suzanne M. Garber, COO of International SOS Assistance, Inc., also feels that it is not an either/or proposition between “nice” and “effective,” maintaining that it is possible for women to be 
both. “I think the more telling question is not ‘Is a woman perceived to be effective in her role if she is also nice’ but ‘Is a woman effective in her role if she is also nice,’” Garber says. “Behavior does matter in the workplace and professional courtesy niceness is, in some cases, just as important as competence. In the end, performance matters and how that is accomplished does count.”

Take Time to Show Your Softer Side

While much of the advice directed toward women about navigating the paradox centers on women boosting their “require” skills, some emphasize the specific importance of emphasizing the “softer side.” Nancy Butler, consultant at Butler Communications, started her own financial planning and asset management business at age 31. Within a year she was hiring and training financial advisors, most of whom were men.

“I tend to be a bottom-line type of manager,” Butler says. “I was considered nice by some and not so nice by others as I have little time for ‘fluff’ or softening issues.” To help moderate her no-nonsense image, Butler’s strategy was to find small ways to show appreciation to her staff; for example, holding monthly staff meetings that include lunch for the team; keeping small gifts at hand to reward high performance; sponsoring an annual staff appreciation dinner. “Run the business as it should be run, but find other ways to show your softer side,” Butler says.

Push Back When Needed

Sometimes, women must take early action to avoid becoming labeled as a pushover. Libby Kavoulakis, chief executive of The Metis Group LLC, faced the niceness paradox as a senior manager at a Big 5 consulting firm, and now faces it again in her own consulting business. From her experience, she has found that responding at the first sign of trouble can be an effective strategy to get around the niceness paradox.

She suggests that women who are targeted as being too nice make a direct statement in a moderated tone to push back on a comment or action. “Strike back once with tact and grace and the ‘nice’ will be removed as a label,” Kavoulakis says. “Become a silent assassin one time to set the tone that a woman may be more polite or considerate, but not a pushover.”

Be Strategically Nice

Women are known to excel in the realm of emotional intelligence, yet many don’t think about the importance of understanding and strategically pursuing emotional intelligence in the workplace, says executive coach and president of Healthy Workplaces Mallary Tytel. She suggests recognizing that self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and social skills are part of your responsibilities. “These four competencies can support or get in the way of your relationships and your influence on others,” Tytel says.

Building on this theme, our poll suggests that women can use emotional intelligence to better strategic advantage by distinguishing between types of people in our careers, and adjusting our behavioral tactics accordingly. In other words, deciding whether to play nice should be based on who we’re talking to or trying to influence.

“Women should be nice with those who are nice themselves and/or people who pose no threat to our careers,” says author and corporate trainer Marlene Caroselli. “By contrast, with those who may deliberately or inadvertently establish roadblocks to our careers, we have to be more hard-edged, more business-like, more driven.”

Leadership coach Maureen Metcalf agrees that it’s important to have a clear goal for the interaction. “In some situations you may choose to be more likable and others to be more knowledgeable and in control depending on your overall outcome for the relationship,” Metcalf says. “There may be times you want to be liked because it serves your overall goal, and there may be other times you are hired to make the tough decisions and being nice is a real detriment.”

Career advisor Darrell Gurney reiterates the value in remaining strategically flexible. “The point is for women to learn how to adapt to the world in what it needs in the moment so as to ensure that their message and mission get conveyed,” Gurney says. “They can then plan strategically how to best deal with the world from the perspective that it holds: from a chess-master mindset rather than a waging-war-on-the-opinion mindset.”

Rethink What “Nice” Means

Feminine skills that have been marginalized by being called “nice” are in fact powerful and effective skills, suggests developmental psychologist and
executive coach Dr. Birute Regine. Regine, who is author of the book Iron Butterflies: Women Transforming Themselves and the Word, says we bring biases to the word “nice” that suggest to be nice is to be ineffective. Yet many feminine skills that are labeled as “nice”—and are thus demeaned and dismissed—are actually very powerful.

Regine points out that recent studies by MIT and Carnegie Mellon on collective intelligence revealed that the collective intelligence of a group is not determined by the smartest person on the team nor the average intelligence of team members. Instead, one factor researchers discovered could predict improved collective intelligence was ensuring that half the people at the table were women.

“What do women bring to the table that catalyzes evolved thinking?” Regine asks. “A superior social sensitivity in reading non-verbal cues and other people’s emotions, and a fairness in turn taking. Couldn’t this be perceived as being nice?”

The strategy that Regine suggests for women is to embrace the power of nice as also effective. “It’s not an either/or argument,” Regine says. “Being nice when it includes feminine skills such as relational intelligence, inclusion, empathy, collaboration, deep listening, and consensus building is a very effective way to achieve your goals.”

There are times as a leader where being nice means being human, says Donna Friedman Meir, owner and founder of Lemonade Creative Consulting and chief innovation officer at Insight Strategy Group. She emphasizes that authenticity is the key to success, whether you are a woman or a man. “To be an effective leader, you need to have a genuine relationship with your team,” Meir says. “Being ‘nice’ is about being real, and that leads to genuine effectiveness.”

Think Culturally

The dilemma of ‘nice’ versus ‘effective’ is one of the main reasons Rachel Kovar started her own business.
 Founder and president of AccessMBS, Kovar says that the first thing women must do to gain the benefits of being both nice and effective is to understand what those terms mean in your organization’s culture.

“In my experience, being ‘nice’ is often at its worst used to describe someone perceived as non-threatening, non-competitive,” Kovar says. “This person is a seen as a ‘do-er’ or ‘worker bee,’ not as a thinker, strategist, or leader. ‘Nice’ people have time for everyone; they will willingly take on any task regardless of who is asking or if it’s within their purview.”

Once you are aware of the cultural implications at your company of ‘nice’ and ‘effective,’ you can better bridge the two approaches. “My approach to walking the line between being disliked and being a doormat is to be warm and engaging, but have preset limits and boundaries so I can remain decisive, firm, and focused,” Kovar says.

Darcy Eikenberg, founder and chief creative officer at Red Cape Revolution agrees that the real issue is to explore what ‘nice’ means in a workplace context. “‘Nice’ doesn’t mean doing things everyone wants and never making anyone mad,” Eikenberg says. “‘Nice’ doesn’t mean soft. ‘Nice’ doesn’t mean pretending everything is always okay and never getting frustrated with people or situations. That’s not nice.”

How should women look at ‘nice’ instead? Eikenberg suggests true ‘nice’ is about being clear on your worth, being confident and in control, making the best choices you can in each situation, and acting consistently with a positive and professional attitude.

Boost Confidence

Lauren Still, founder of the Careerevolution Group, says that developing true confidence and inner strength is key to women learning how to own their power without needing to wield it over others. “A confidence that comes from within will allow women to act in ways that are effective and in line with their integrity, without needing to be ‘liked’ at any cost,” Still says. “Insecurities can create an overly ‘nice’ person, or someone who tries to overcompensate and becomes aggressive or disingenuous.”

If a woman cannot bring herself to do what it takes to effectively address issues as they arise, she might want to take a close look at how she views her own self-worth, says Carol Quinn, founder and CEO of Higher Authority. Quinn says that while the more effective way of responding may not please everyone, doing what needs to be done—without feeling guilty—is a lesson many women need to learn.

“Being effective doesn’t have to mean being mean, but when nice doesn’t work, a person has to muster the courage to be not-so-nice if that’s what it takes to make her stance clear,” Quinn says. “Become aware that your need to be liked may not be serving you as well as you think.”

At the root of the desire to be nice is the need to have others think highly of you because you don’t think that way about yourself. The solution? Change how you feel about yourself, and you will no longer have the need for others to like you. “When you have already given this to yourself, the niceness issue evaporates,” Quinn says. “Now, you can be authentically nice.”