The politics of ‘nice’ – are you too friendly at work?

nasty woman

In a US election process that stumped even the most apathetic of onlookers, one moment in particular stood out for career women across the western world. Towards the end of the third presidential debate, Donald Trump referred to Hillary Clinton as a ‘nasty woman’.

The choice of insult is telling. Must Clinton be nice to be good at her job? Can presidents only be lovely, non-divisive individuals? In the case of the latter, Trump’s lack of self-awareness may have reached new heights.

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We decided to take a look at ‘niceness’ and its place in the modern office.

 The good stuff…

Being nice has its advantages. People want to hang out with you. But do they want to work with you?

The short answer is: yes. Being friendly can improve both your relationships and your performance at work. A 2015 study showed that people who perceived a colleague as polite would be more likely to seek that person out for work advice; they were also more likely to see that person as a leader. Interestingly, employee competence also increased in line with perceived affability.

Still, many individuals – particularly in business – continue to fear the label of ‘nice’, thinking it will negatively affect their chances of success. Employee engagement expert Kathryn Kerns believes that the opposite is true.

“Nicer managers have more engaged employees,” Kerns writes. “In turn, companies with engaged employees have better productivity, profitability and customer ratings, and lower rates of turnover, absenteeism and quality issues.” She adds the caveat that ‘niceness’ is not synonymous with over-accommodation.

Psychiatrist Marcia Sirota, however, draws a distinction between the words ‘kind’ and ‘nice’ – the former being the preferred managerial trait. “The kind manager has clear expectations and sets clear limits,” she qualifies. “They treat everyone in their workplace fairly, and they allow no-one to get away with unacceptable behaviour.”

So, while you don’t want to overdo it, being nice may be an important factor in helping you get ahead in the office.

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… and the bad

While employees may benefit from being perceived as agreeable, it may cause problems further up the hierarchy. This year, research showed that while ‘nicer’ CEO candidates are better at the top job, they’re also less likely to nab the position. So what helps you succeed at work may be what prevents you from advancing. Ironic, huh?

Plus, while being affable can spare you a world of workplace horrors, there are numerous irritations ready to rear up in their place. There is a fine line between accommodating and doormat – a mere few slip-ups between a loose hand and a loss of control. Being too nice can invite colleagues to take advantage of you in a way that can only negatively affect your performance.

Being too ‘nice’ may even have psychological repercussions. People who take on every task they’re assigned for fear of disappointing colleagues are headed for trouble. Sirota cautions that over-doing it at work will lead not to accolades from your boss but to further demands and eventual burnout. “Learn to let go of your people-pleasing behaviour,” she warns.

Lastly, being too focussed on pleasing others can lead to sub-standard performance and product. “Being polite may lead to more opportunities, but it doesn’t lead to the best one: the opportunity to make something remarkable,” says Michael Cho of Crew, who believes that brutal honesty is the only way to achieve excellent results. So next time your underling hands in a sub-standard report, don’t bite your tongue: let them know in a calm but direct manner, and you can expect better results going forward.

The rise of the ‘nasty woman’

It wasn’t until the 19th century that little girls were first described as ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’. But women have, for most of known history, been particularly subject to ‘nice’-policing. Yes: ‘niceness’ is a gendered behaviour – at least, in part.

In Nancy Henley’s work Body Politics, the author proposes that smiling and ‘nice’ body language are developed by women as a method of female-male appeasement. The suggestion goes that de-escalating, friendly behaviour is a necessary counter to the social and physical threat of male employees – again, a cultural rather than inherent problem.

Being aggressive rather than ‘nice’ has long been associated with 70s second-wave feminism. And who can blame women for seeking to assert themselves? Even these days, ‘manterrupting’ makes headlines. Linguist Kieran Snyder conducted a fascinating study of individuals at her workplace and found that men interrupted others roughly twice as often as women, and junior women only interrupted other women.

Furthermore, workers higher up the hierarchy were much more likely to interrupt colleagues. Interestingly, women at this level had begun to interrupt the men. “The results suggest that women don’t advance in their careers beyond a certain point without learning to interrupt, at least in this male-dominated tech setting,” she concludes. “This is really striking, and starts to put directional data behind the stereotype whereby strong female leaders are often dismissed with the pejoratives bossy, unpleasant, and bitchy.”

To Nasty . . . Or Not?

So women should act nasty if they want get ahead? Not necessarily. Contrary to Snyder’s hypothesis, a 2011 Notre Dame study indicated that, while men get ahead by being disagreeable, women don’t. Professor Timothy Judge commented: “If you’re a disagreeable man, you’re considered a tough negotiator. But, the perception is that if a woman is agreeable, she gets taken advantage of, and if she is disagreeable, she’s considered a control freak or ‘the B-word.’”

The conclusion? It seems the jury’s still out on female ‘niceness’ in the workplace – at least, so far as advancement is concerned. What’s certain is that women tend to observe social norms more rigorously in a corporate environment.  And not because they necessarily want to.

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Smile, darling!

Smiling. Who’d have thought such a small behaviour could be so important? And yet, in the workplace, the smile is king.

Research shows that people – male or female – who smile are more likely to be remembered by employers and clients. Way back in 2002, a Pennsylvania State University study suggested that smiling not only created positive impressions in those around you, but improved your own work performance. So if you’re worried about being ‘nice’ at work, flash those pearlies ASAP.

Alas, this is another area where standards divide across genders. Smiling is a learned behaviour that women demonstrate far more often than men – because they have to. So great is the cultural onus on women to be smiley that women who don’t possess permanently grinning features are diagnosed with ‘bitchy resting face’. But at least we can joke about it… right?

The conclusion? Smile and be friendly in the office – but don’t go overboard. You’re not at work to people-please. Women will usually be expected to smile more than men.  It is, alas, the norm in modern society.  But if you find yourself in a position of responsibility, don’t be afraid to assert yourself. Play hard for promotions – you’re more likely to get the job – and relax into the role once you get there. The best bosses are those with firm expectations and a compassionate manner, whatever your gender.

So next time you feel bad for demanding that report early, remember: nice girls finish last.

This guest post was authored by Inspiring Interns

 Inspiring Interns is a graduate recruitment agency which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To hire graduates or browse graduate jobs, visit their website.


Image credits.

Back off.   Smile.    Business  

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