by Gina Rae Hendrickson
As the only female lumberjack in my timber region,
who donned a hard-hat, wore steel-toed boots, sorted logs, and
developed the muscles of a female Hercules, I have a confession
to make. Despite brute strength, I lacked personal power. I did
not know how to get my needs met, either through my own will,
or through the assistance of others. Looking back on those early
years of career development, knowing what I know now as a professional
negotiator, I attribute my difficulties to being 'Nice.'
What is the connection between being 'Nice' and
lacking personal power? 'Nice' is a pleasant and agreeable approach
that supports the needs of others, but is passive in acting on
one's own behalf. My professional experience indicates that this
inactive approach can compound problems in the workplace, create
stress, and promote dishonesty among colleagues.
Clearly, good manners and civility are an essential
lubricant in a society of competing needs. Yet, many of us have
heard the phrase, "Nice guys finish last." That made
me curious: What is underneath this losing strategy? Why would
someone persist in this tradition? While many of us may put ourselves
in the 'Nice Club', it is important to examine our assumptions
and motives before we enroll as full-time members.
For example, Lisa, a manager in a hospital library,
found she was primarily motivated by the desire to preserve relationships.
Her activities rallied around being likable, having pleasant interactions,
and being supportive to others. Desirable characteristics, right?
What were the consequences of Lisa's approach?
Lisa accommodated others without the proper computer equipment
and personnel support which she needed to do her job. She also
accepted menial tasks that distracted her from her own mounting
responsibilities; all the while, Lisa increasingly considered
quitting her job. As Lisa stoically maintained a pleasant, 'Nice'
demeanor, her resentment grew. Yet, no one at work heard a whisper
of discontent from Lisa.
Tom, a manager at a prominent information technology
plant, majored in 'Nice' as well. As downsizing put more demands
on everyone to do more with less, Tom said "Yes" to
increasing demands, including 50-hour weeks and working on weekends.
Over time, his resentment and burnout led to an explosive episode
with his supervisor. On hearing of Tom's pent-up dissatisfaction,
his supervisor, Curt, said, "Why didn't you tell me it was
too much? Had I been clued in, I'd have done something different."
Tom was so busy being agreeable that he didn't
make his needs known, educate his colleagues about how the scheduling
impacted other important projects, nor suggest more workable options.
For Tom, there were no options beside 'Nice.'
The Requirements of 'Nice'
* For Lisa, Tom, and others I interviewed,
'Nice' was maintained by:
* Saying "Yes" when they really meant "No,"
in order to preserve relationships;
* Maintaining an agreeable front despite internal conflicts due
to accepting less than what they really wanted;
* Assuming the supportive role for others, while keeping their
own needs unspoken;
* Suppressing information about how things really were for them,
in the spirit of, "If you can't say something nice, don't
say anything at all."
The Weak Links of 'Nice'
Why would someone persist in being 'Nice'?
Many followers of 'Nice' believe in the notion that it will deliver
rewards; so much so, that they don't notice the diminished returns
in real life.
Unfortunately, 'Nice' cannot deliver when it is
a pleasant facade that disguises real issues and desires, or when
it creates a barrier to being seen. Over time, relationships
become inauthentic shells bound by pleasant performance, rather
than expressions of our true selves.
'Nice' people often refuse to self-disclose, denying
others a chance to provide assistance. Ultimately, suppressing
internal conflict actually misinforms others about what is going
on. Second, there is a common misperception that the only choices
available are to be 'Nice' or 'Mean.' In truth, there are other
constructive options for operating successfully with others. Even
so, realizing the fallacy that "If You're Nice, Good Things
Will Automatically Happen to You," can be a bit of a shock
- like the bursting of a childhood illusion that Santa isn't real.
So, what's next?
Choices Beyond 'Nice'
Personal power in the workplace and in our personal lives
requires the courage to act on our own behalf. It translates into
getting our needs met while meeting the needs of others.
Fernando Flores, former finance minister for Chile,
and international consultant to major corporations, asserts that
there are five choices in which to respond to requests that
allow us to build trusting relationships and get assistance.
1. Say "Yes," mean it, and follow through
2. Say "No" when what is being requested doesn't work
well for you. It is only when we can say "No" that we
ever truly can say "Yes." The ability to say "No"
allows others to be more honest and direct, an opportunity that
'Nice' does not provide.
3. Commit to commit when you need time to think about your true
needs and capabilities. Committing to commit is a promise that
you'll get back with others at a designated time to let them know
4. Counteroffer when you are not able to provide for the exact
request, but are able to provide something else. It's an offer
that lets others know you can't do X, so how about Y?
5. Renegotiate when you find that you cannot keep your promise.
Ask what you can do to help others find another way.
In addressing the need for trusting and supportive
relationships in the workplace, Fernando Flores says, "Our
best comes out when we have honest discussions. Our worst comes
out when we behave like robots or professionals." The five
choices for responding encourage flexible action plans that reflect
the true needs of the participants.
Life After Leaving 'Nice'
Tom, the former self-described "Yes-man,"
initially thought that using the five response choices would create
more havoc with his burgeoning workload. Instead, Curt now trusts
that Tom will keep him informed as to the real implications of
shifting priorities and additional demands. Tom weaned himself
from Nice by remembering that at any given moment there are five
possible choices for how to respond to requests. Now Tom asks
himself which choice contributes most to the situation at hand.
Lisa, recently promoted to director of the hospital
library, is thriving after leaving 'Nice' to lead a more proactive
role in the workplace. To her surprise, telling others what she
needs has not been a problem; it has enhanced her credibility
with her colleagues and superiors. By using the five response
choices beyond "just say yes," she accomplishes more
at work and doesn't put off what she needs to do for herself.
Lisa is convinced that she could not be in a position with her
level of responsibility if she had kept to her Nice old ways.
As she delegates and promotes others, she asserts, "It's
preferable to give responsibility to those who take care of themselves."
As for myself, having learned that a person who
tries to please all will please none, I find that I actually can
please most by being my true self. No longer a slave to being
'Nice', I enjoy being collaborative by allowing my needs to be
equal among others.'
My ability to add value and provide leadership
is due to my choosing from a broader range of choices that more
truly reflect the needs of each situation. For example, a series
of counter offers in meetings can be an effective way of brainstorming.
Also, saying "No" can be a form of project management,
particularly as a precaution from overextending oneself.
Committing to commit is useful to avoid reacting
to the pressure of the moment. New situations may require renegotiating
your participation. From these choices, it follows that a "Yes"
has much more power because it contains no resentment.
According to a recent survey, about 40 percent
of American workers complain of excessive workloads. Increased
responsibilities require a balancing act between work and personal
duties. As managing boundaries becomes a necessary skill for new
demands of the workplace, how would your life improve by giving
'Nice' a rest.
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