You aren’t too nice to be leadership material

Nice is also effective, if coupled with strength.
Nice is also effective, if coupled with strength.
Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
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Have you ever been told at work that you’re too nice? That you need to be tougher, more demanding? I have, at least a dozen times, by colleagues, clients, and bosses.

These voices were in my ear years ago when I had a run-in with a coworker named Jane. Jane was responsible for giving approvals for client proposals, and she was notorious for taking her time. Normally I did my best to accommodate her, but one time I had an urgent proposal and couldn’t shake the advice that I should be tougher and stop worrying about getting other people’s buy-in.

So I decided to do something that went against my usual style—I went above Jane’s head to her boss. I got that approval, but I ruined a relationship. Sure enough, the next time I needed help from Jane, she said no.

I had lost Jane’s trust, and in the end, it hurt me just as much as I had hurt her.

When you’re nice, you earn trust, and trust is the crux of every business relationship. But being nice is not considered cool. Or powerful. Or effective. In fact, in the corporate world, kindness is rarely celebrated. When you hear words like CEO, Boss, Successful leader, what traits and attributes come to mind? Demanding. Smart. Competitive. Tough. None of these qualities are bad. In fact, they’re essential for success. But so is kindness.

Women are often surprised when they meet me to find that I am nice—they expect something different because I made it to the corner office. Niceness, we’re told again and again, is just another word for weakness. Many women, like me, are given this “constructive” feedback that they are “too nice” on repeat. But when I asked these women if being nice has helped them in their career, nearly every single one said yes. They know that niceness, when coupled with strength, is a powerful tool.

Studies from Harvard Business Review and Google show that being trustworthy is more important than competence when it comes to how someone is perceived at work. In fact, these studies prove that you shouldn’t be cutthroat and ruthless to get ahead.

After the Jane debacle, I went back to cultivating relationships, because business is all about people and connections. It’s about being able to influence people positively, get the best out of your team, and have productive conversations when the message you’re delivering is difficult. These things are easier when you’re kind to people and create an environment of trust and respect. Throughout my career, I was consistently promoted every two or three years, often above people who had more experience than I had, and I know my people skills played a bigger role in this than my technical skills. When you come across as warm, trustworthy, and likeable, people want to work with you.

Frankly, the business world would be a better place if we were all a little nicer. It’s a waste of time and energy to pretend to be something you’re not and to fake your way into a corporate “mold.” Melinda Gates recently wrote about her experience as the only woman in her hiring class of MBAs: “Several of my colleagues were aggressive, sometimes even combative. I tried to emulate what I saw around me and it was a long time before it occurred to me that maybe it was the mold—not me—that needed adjusting.” I couldn’t agree more.

Over the years, I’ve had to repeatedly defend the concept and power of being nice. People ask, “Won’t being nice hurt your career in the end?” (it won’t) and “Don’t nice people end up being passed over for promotions and raises because they’re not aggressive enough to ask for what they want?” (they don’t have to be).

Being nice also helped me build my personal confidence; the loyalty of those who’ve worked with me; and a strong, trusting, faithful network of colleagues, mentors, and mentees. It’s my capital—it’s truly my biggest asset. And when you pair ambition with authentic niceness, they can become the tools you need to truly succeed.

Fran Hauser is the author of The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate.