I’ve written about being nice before and how it can sabotage your career and your wellbeing. It’s not that nice guys finish last; I think that if we were all nicer to each other, the world would be a better place. But what is corrosive to your soul is being nice instead of being strong – being nice in the hope that you won’t have to be strong. It doesn’t work, and it eats at your confidence and your power.
Emily Bennington is the author of Who Says It’s a Man’s World: The Girls’ Guide to Corporate Domination. She has included a whole chapter on being nice in her book on women’s leadership. Here’s what she says about the difference between men and women: “It’s been said that men view business as a sport and women view business as a picnic. In other words, men want to win and women want to make sure everyone has a sandwich and a good time.” Ouch.
Bennington admits that her interest in women and leadership stems from an incident from her first time leading a team. She held a director-level position in a corporate environment, and, for the first time, had the opportunity to delegate a task to her assistant. She was much younger than her assistant, and had many fewer years in the company. She tells me quite frankly that she was intimidated by asking this competent woman to do a task for her.
The request Bennington made came out more like a timid suggestion, and after a few moments of awkward silence, Bennington did what many women would do: she reached over to grab the dirty Tupperware off her assistant’s desk and chirped, “May I take this for you?” Yep. As she delegated her assignment, she cleared the table like a good hostess and took the dirty dishes to the break room.
What’s wrong with a nice gesture? Lots, in this case. Bennington admits that her motivation was simply to make herself seem weaker so she’d be less threatening. (Mission accomplished, by the way; I wonder how long it took her to regain her power and respect.) No one wants to be perceived as a bully, but everyone understands that someone has to be the boss. If you are hiding behind nice so people won’t see your true power, you are doing everyone a disservice.
Let me be clear on the fact that I don’t think that “powerful” and “nice” are antonyms. You don’t need to be controlling to have control, and you don’t need to be a dictator to get things done. And people naturally like to do things for people they like, so being friendly and pleasant is an asset in management. But there’s a difference between being pleasant because you want to and being pleasant because you want people to like you.
Learning the difference will help you understand how the world runs.
“I met an old lady once, almost a hundred years old, and she told me, ‘There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history. How much do you love me? And Who’s in charge?”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love