A Controversial female dilemma that even women don’t like spelling out…
Being 'nice' means a person is considerate of others, picks their battles by prioritizing emotional intelligence and by thinking of the effects their words or actions can have on others. It also means not being selfish, helping others when you can without being asked to do so, and it is considered a virtue in general. However, particularly in business the expectation from females to be “nice” is substantially more than from males (Pinel, 1999; Rudman and Glick, 1999).
In other words, if I am not ‘as nice’ I, as a female, am judged harshly and it often has a negative implication for the perceptions others have of me (and perceptions matter in business). On the other hand, if a male is not being too nice, it is considered a strength or bravery even. This is not news to anyone and no one reading this should consider it as anything other than factual reality that is needed to set the scene.
So, although we are the generation of “women can do it all” including “not being nice” and huge amounts of posts (e.g. articles in huffington post), influential business people (e.g. Mrs Sanderberg) and research talk about the need of “empowering”, which broadly means that we need to allow individuals to be their authentic selves, strong, capable and active regardless of their gender, there is still a discrepancy between our intentions and what really happens.
I was getting out of a meeting recently, where unfortunately* I had to “not be nice”. In short, things were not done as I wanted them to be done, I have a voice and I used it with the teams I lead. Following that, however, I extended a "wider than normal smile" to the members of my team to reassure them it’s all good. I also slightly switched the pitch of my voice and, while waiting for elevators, changed the subject of the conversation to something I don’t even remember anymore, yet was along the lines of “how was your weekend… oh, wow, that’s great and the weather was awesome”.
(*"unfortunately” came as my natural response when writing this sentence and while typing I realized that it illustrates well, in a subtle way, what I mean by females being nice. I didn’t need to say “unfortunately”. I was doing my job and I was simply strict, there is no place for “unfortunately”, but unfortunately it made it here).
I get in and out of such meetings often…very often. I have necessary, thought conversations as part of my work, but they are all often followed by the extended smile to diminish the strictness of what I have said and demanded. I fluctuate between 'being nice' and 'not being nice'.
It might seem like a reasonable thing to do, but it costs me the consistency in perceptions of what I stand for and it costs me in my personal as well as my business life.
‘Being nice’ has pushed me to figuratively extend the same ‘wider than normal smile’ to the men in my life which mistreated me by maintaining unfair, non-loving relationships with me. I have understood, supported and encouraged them for real when they have decided to not be nice with me, and I have remained good friends with many of them for which I am proud, yet was it necessary?
I may not be the rule but sure am a good illustration of a strong woman that considers ‘being strong’ to also equate to being the ‘bigger person’ … meaning being ultimately ‘nice’ and letting others of the hook of responsibility. Myself and many other women are able to take a lot of punches for the sake of owning the virtuous quality of being “nice” to others, partly because of our ‘nature’ , partially because of the expectations set from society. The reality is that it’s best to JUST be “empowered” and hit back without apologizing while maintaining rational attitude.
The worst mistake in business is to be nice and not get the balance right with being your true professional self, even if this means not being considered nice at all times.
Implications vary, but most visible in business are:
1) Extensive time spent on fixing other’s problems
2) Not getting what you want when you want it
3) Assuming a lot more responsibility than your male colleagues would do
4) Reinforcing a state of limited self-appreciation
In order for many of us to let go of the idea that all our visible actions are defining the qualities we possess, women need to reflect first on the fact that maybe we are already ‘nice people’ and there is NO need to prove it or show it to anyone else.
You are worth it way more than you give yourself credit for in those quiet, private moments when you can be honest about your self-evaluation. Being “nice” is a wonderful quality you have, use it wisely, not as a keen-jerk reaction.
In business, we should continue to differ to our male counterparts and apply our more generous emotional intelligence, which we possess in larger quantities. The worlds of corporate business as well as start-ups need the 'female touch' more than ever, and precisely because of this need we should stop extending the “wider than necessary” smiles to try cover up the fact that:
WE KNOW EXACTLY WHAT WE WANT, WHY WE WANT IT AND HOW WE WANT IT.
1. Pinel, Elizabeth C. 1999, Stigma consciousness: The psychological legacy of social stereotypes, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 76(1), pp. 114-128
2. Rudman, Laurie A.,Glick, Peter, 1999, Feminized management and backlash toward agentic women: The hidden costs to women of a kinder, gentler image of middle managers, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 77(5), pp. 1004-1010