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Why ‘Nice’ Doesn’t Work

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 on it.
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 your answer.
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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