Welcome to my first solo episode! That’s right – no guest today. I’ll still be hosting interviews because I love meeting the amazing women I get the chance to meet – and love introducing them to you. But they’ll be fewer this year as I try to align my podcast with my work, which is coaching women like you to find your CEO voice, build businesses that light you up, and giving you the support you need to be wildly successful!
Today I’m talking about whether or not women should try to be “nice” at work or in business. I think we’re all aware of what happens when we’re not – words like “bitch, aggressive, standoff-ish, too good for everyone else, too ambitious” get tossed around. But the same doesn’t happen to men. They’re not expected to be “sugar and spice and everything nice,” are they?
This quest to be nice is damaging us, our ability to stand up for our value, and our ability to show up as our whole selves at work. And I think we have to kick this goal to the curb in favour of a different one.
What I Cover In This Episode:
- Why “nice” shouldn’t be our goal and what we should strive for instead
- How being nice is really more about our own validation than it is about intention towards others
- Ways that “nice” keeps us from meeting our own goals and standing up for our value
- A real-life example of a well-known woman who is the model for what I want for you instead
- How “nice” shows up in our conversations with other women and how we support them
- Suggestions for what real support can look like
Hello friends! I’m so glad you’re tuning in for this episode. Before we get started, This is my first solo episode – so I have no guest today! It’s all me, talking to you about a subject that comes up a lot in coaching sessions with women. So often that it deserves its own episode. It’s my goal with these solo episodes to start (or continue) conversations. They won’t always be instructive, but they’ll always poke at something I’ve been thinking about or that I wish we were talking about more often. And we’ll get to this week’s topic in a minute. But first, I want to remind you that you can subscribe to receive email notifications of new podcast episodes at beambitiousforher.com/subscribe. You can also follow me on instagram and twitter at beambitiousfor her (on twitter the word four is the number 4), and I have a brand new facebook page that you can find by searching Be Ambitious For Her or through the link in the shownotes for this episode. With that covered off, let’s get into this episode.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how as women, we’re overly concerned with being seen as “nice” at work, with our employees, our customers and our peers. You know how it goes….you’re thinking about something and suddenly everything you see around you is related to that topic? I was suddenly seeing this issue coming up everywhere so it seemed like a topic begging to be discussed on the podcast!
It’s such an important topic because it impacts so many things about how we show up and relate to others at work and in our businesses – it can affect our pay if we feel like it’s not particularly nice of us to follow up on a customer’s late payments, it affects how we stand up for our own work, whether or not we speak up in meetings, how we stand up for our own value…it’s a pretty important and ubiquitous problem. I think its one of those things a lot of women don’t even think consciously about. We know we’re rewarded for presenting as “nice” and we’re penalized for not doing so. It often doesn’t even feel like we have a lot of choice in the matter. So I want to talk about it today and hopefully encourage some of you to continue the conversation in your own circles.
One of those examples that I noticed recently was a twitter thread by a female doctor talking about how she had made a few female nurses at her hospital cry after giving them direct and honest feedback. And when asked, those nurses said they were used to getting feedback from men in this way but expected it to feel different coming from a woman – that it should feel better or be delivered in a nicer way. And a few weeks ago, I watched Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee – the episode with The Ellen DeGeneres – which hit a nerve because when Jerry was talking to Ellen about why she thinks she’s been so popular and she said, “You know, I don’t really get what my appeal is” and Jerry said, “Well, what do you want your appeal to be?” and her reply was “Well, I guess I’d like to be known as a nice person” to which Jerry responded “no one pays anyone to be a nice person”.
And it occurred to me that this conversation would likely never have happened between two men.
My next thought was, “Why does it matter? I have no idea if Ellen is a nice person”. So if that’s her goal, I have no way of knowing if she has achieved it. When I think of Ellen, I think of empathy, kindness, altruism, activism, self-respect and courage. I don’t think “nice”. And so, I question whether or not “being a nice person” is really a goal we should have – at least not at work.
Even if you’ve never stated it as succinctly as Ellen did, if you’re like most women, you probably have an underlying need to be seen as “nice” because it’s what society expects. And it’s what we’re punished for when we step outside that norm. We get labelled bitchy, aggressive, pushy, or my personal favourite, too ambitious which leaves us, as usual, in the double bind of damned if we do, damned if we don’t. And surprisingly, most research on this subject of the unconscious bias women face in the workplace shows that we, as women, punish ourselves and each other for these so called transgressions. The patriarchy is that strong, my friends.
I suggest we focus on different words – other than nice – and think about what we’re really striving for as women in the workplace and as business owners. So today, I want to talk about having a different goal – kindness. And this goes for both men and women, but . For example – I think there’s a very big difference between nice and kind. I’m going to age myself here, but since we’re on the comedian theme, I’ve always been a pretty big fan of George Carlin. And he would say, “Nice is such a soft, kind of flabby word. There’s no character to it.” Even in the famous poem, girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice”. And this is what we’ve been trained to think ever since we were little. When we’re told to sit still in school and hand in our homework on time and not be disruptive and not color outside the lines and just show up and be likable. And for God’s sakes, don’t be confrontational!
But to me, the biggest problem with nice is that it’s anti-diversity. It means everyone is striving to fit into a mold – to be the same. It means everyone is conforming and we’re not allowed to be individuals. You’re not allowed to bring your full selves to either school or work or to whatever your endeavour is. So to continue with Ellen’s example, no – I don’t look at Ellen and think “Wow she’s nice” because I think what she has built is unique and something that’s a testament to her goals, and her core values. There’s nothing boring or flabby there. I WOULD say Ellen is kind. I look at her philanthropy and activism around the LGBTQ community, animals and veganism and the way that she treats everyone on her show similarly whether they’re an average Joe or a very well known person and see intention – which goes with kindness. Nice is an adjective. There’s no intention associated with it. Which is why it feels kind of flabby and non-committal.
If kindness and respect for others is her intention, I think it’s also part of how she commands respect for herself. She’s consistent. She shows up as herself. She decided a long time ago to stop hiding who she really is, to stop trying to fit into our social expectations about how a woman should behave, dress or talk. And whom she should love. And if you look at the fact that she, before anyone, stood up and said “I’m going to be myself at work. I’m going to let the world know who I am and they can watch my show or not. And I’m done pretending to be someone else”. That’s not particularly in line with what we consider nice behaviour for a woman, but I think it’s what we admire about her. We appreciate her authenticity and vulnerability and the fact that she decided to show up at work as her whole self and let everyone else be ok with that or not. Other people’s thoughts or reactions weren’t going to change how she felt about herself.
If you want to be seen as nice, you’re really thinking only about you. It’s about how you’re perceived vs what you’re doing for others or how you’re helping them. At it’s core, being nice is about seeking validation or approval from others. Being nice only requires status quo and not rocking the boat to pull off. But if you want to be kind, that’s all how you treat others, the respect you afford them, and your intentions around helping them achieve their goals. In fact, it might even be kind for you to not be particularly nice to me. If there’s a blind spot I have that’s holding me back at work, and you’re able to hold up that mirror for me in a respectful way, I might not think you’ve been particularly nice in that moment – you’ve just exposed one of my weak areas. But if you think about it, it was incredibly kind of you to offer this awareness to me. Free from that blind spot, I can grow, do better, and perhaps pass on a kindness to another co-worker.
In fact, this preference for kind action over being nice is kind of what the field of coaching is about. If you’re a client of mine, you’ve likely heard me ask this question: “If I say something that upsets you in an effort to expose a blind spot, how shall we handle it?” Because I’m far more concerned with my clients’ growth, transformation, and holding them accountable to their goals than I am with hoping they’ll like me in the end because I was always nice. Notice I didn’t apologize for upsetting the client. I asked how they’d like to handle it if the relationship starts to feel a little hard? I choose rocking the boat every single time if it helps my clients achieve their goals. I consider it a radical act of kindness to confidently and firmly help them expose where they have an opportunity to grow.
So no, I don’t think nice is something we should be striving for.
I also think it leads to a form of one-downsmanship which is the exact opporsite of the one up-manship which you generally see men participating in. You might never thought about it in this way, but I would like you to consider it.
How many times have you been in a conversation with a female coworker or peer, where the other woman expresses some doubt, fear or concern around a situation where they feel very like they’re not measuring up? A lot of times when this happens, we’re looking for someone to commiserate with — someone to tell us that we’re not alone. And to be sure….there’s a lot of value in that kind of acknowledgement. I’m not advocating we stop that!
But what I’ve seen happen more often than not, is that women tend to continue on with a conversation that goes a little like this: “You think that’s bad? You should have seen what happened with MY coworker. Or that’s nothing – you won’t even believe how badly I screwed up” It’s like we’ve decided to meet each other at the bottom because we don’t want to be “not nice” – which in this case, looks like succeeding where other women are not. It’s a deep dive into a scarcity mindset that says: “If she’s successful, I can’t be. There’s only so much success to go around. So let’s all just wallow in despair or some version of semi-success so we don’t upset the apple cart.
Sometimes it shows up when a woman demands that employees meet her expectations. And this requirement, as in the example with the doctor on Twitter, feels like confrontation to some women. It’s easier to say this particular boss isn’t being nice than it is to question whether you’ve actually met the expectations in the first place. And until now, society has been ok with this reaction that results in the boss being excluded from the social group because she didn’t conform to social expectations.
This attitude is not helpful, and therefore it isn’t kind. Its only intention is to blame, to ostracize and to cement our own membership in the female community as someone who knows how to play the by the rules. Sure…it might make you feel good to play by the rules but we’re not helping women and not holding us ALL to a standard that says that we are better than this.
And I know we can do hard things and so I’d like to challenge you: next time you are tempted to respond to a conflict or a conversation with your coworkers, peers other business owners who happen to be women, ask yourself this question: “What is the goal of the conversation?” Find out what is really needed in that moment and offer that. If it’s listening, then listen. But let’s not encourage each other to participate in a race to the bottom and instead, work on improving, growing and seeking success. Let’s not be afraid to rock the boat a little.
You need to be unafraid to say “that’s not my experience I tried this and it worked for me”. Instead, you could suggest another way. If you don’t, and I really want you to think about this – It also says “I don’t expect anything more from you than that. And that not only do I not think you’re capable of more, but now I’m going to shrink myself to meet you at the bottom”. When you start to see it this way, the very idea of seeing nice as a goal becomes incredibly disempowering for everyone. Sisterhood doesn’t have to mean commiseration all the time. It can mean expecting more from one another. Pushing ourselves to grow and become and do better. All of which are actually kind intentions. I don’t want co-workers and peers who expect less of me than that. And if you’re listening to this today, I’ve got a feeling you don’t either.
If you had the choice, whom would you choose to work for: a boss who agreed with you all the time, and never challenged or helped you pursue growth opportunities but whom you were great friends with, or one who set clear, consistent standards and expectations and both acknowledged and challenged you to step outside your comfort zone, speak up for yourself and take on new and sometimes scary growth opportunities? I know which one I would choose. At work, I choose respect and kindness over likeability every single time. Being likeable is a cop out. Helping people grow is hard work. It says, “I’m willing to risk everything, including whether or not you like me, to show you what you’re capable of.” And what could be kinder than that?