Do You Need To Be Less Nice To Get Ahead At Work?

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In life isn’t it nice to be nice? At home, at work, with your family. I’m a big believer in getting back what you give out and try to use this a basis for the way I treat other people. My thought is, that if I treat others the way I wish to be treated then I shall set myself up for the happiest life possible. Right?

But then last year, working as a Marketing Director for a creative agency led by a hard-nosed alpha-female CEO, I started to re-evaluate my approach.

I read research that showed women have a pre-disposition to pepper their emails with the word ‘just’ to soften their requests, and noted this was something I did. Like most working women I know, I read ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg and wondered if I was, in fact, leaning in. I was worried my default personality setting of ‘nice’ was holding me back.

Working within a particularly male-dominated area I didn’t want to be seen as a pushover and so I started altering the way I communicated. I became harder, less sympathetic to my team, snappier. I liked myself less but I felt more effective. I wasn’t as nice as I would have liked to be but I felt more respect from the older men I was working with.

I left that job to work for myself in the summer because, as much as I wanted to be seen as direct and articulate, the ingrained sexism of the industry still got to me and the 60 hour working weeks were brutal. Leery comments about what you’re wearing or ice breaking exercises involving cartoons of genitalia are never OK in a working environment, and I definitely didn’t want to harden up and not let these bother me.

And so I said goodbye to the large salary, the dependable income and the pleasant workmates but I re-claimed the right to be a little bit nicer.

Until now.

A few weeks ago I read this article about the Just Not Sorry App, an email plugin that works by underlining letters or phrases in your communications that could undermine the message. Think ‘just’, ‘apologies’, ‘sorry’ – all outlawed. The purpose of the app is to help you hone your message without diminishing your voice.

After using the app for a couple of weeks and altering my emails to suit the red squiggles I started thinking about the default way I communicate at work and whether it was harming my career. Does one need to eradicate niceness to get ahead?

Asking this female-focussed question on Twitter yesterday gave me food for thought:

As a woman myself (obvs) I was wondering if the pre-disposition to be nice was more a female trait, and if Senior women in business were viewed as colder because of this.

There were some great discussions going on and many emotional reactions: feminism in the work place is a huge subject to tackle and there are many facets to this discussion.

I have thought a lot about the ambitious people I’ve worked under in my 10 year marketing career and, men or women, there is a trend. I’ve worked for women who have been intimidating and belittling, but I’ve worked for men who have been this way, too. I’ve also worked for kind and compassionate bosses, but these are fewer and further between, in softer more creative professions and the third sector.

I do think there is something in being less soft that helps you get ahead.

As my career has been focussed on Advertising and Marketing this is all I have experience of. I left this particularly gruelling corporate world because it was so incompatible with my family life, which is something that remains a huge hurdle to women getting ahead in traditionally male-dominated sectors. There’s so much of what I call ‘peacocking’: despite formal working hours being set at 9am – 5pm there’s always the unspoken competition of who can spend the longest at their desk. A competition that mums automatically fail if they have any hope of tucking their children in at night.

I hated leaving work on time. My team in Milton Keynes were fully on board with the 40 hour working week but so often I was asked by my bosses to remind them that “Advertising is not a 9-5 job”. Leaving on time meant you were conspicuous in your absence, and so often I used to rush out the door ON TIME mumbling something about doctor’s appointments or sick babysitters. I felt stuck between a rock and hard place: I’d get it in the neck from nursery or babysitters if I was late for pick-up, but if I left on time management would be disapproving.

This is absolute codswollop. If you’re efficient and effective at your job then you do not need to be at your desk longer than the hours for which you are paid.

Leaving on time meant judgement you weren’t working as hard as others, and so working mothers (especially single ones!) were automatically left at a huge disadvantage. I was offered a promotion but it was implied that if I took it I’d need to toughen up, spend much less time with my family and basically grow bigger balls.

My balls are quite big enough, thank-you.

And so yes, I think there is definitely an aspect of needing to be less nice to get ahead in traditional corporate environments, at least in the ones I’ve worked within.

This is something I don’t want to do. I don’t want to compromise my approachability or friendliness for the sake of my pay packet. I don’t want to not be liked to get a better job title. I don’t want to spend precious time away from my children just to give the impression that I’m better at my job than others. It’s why I now work for myself: nobody judges me when I leave work early for the Harvest Festival, and on days like today when I have a sick baby at home I can hang out with her on the sofa watching Hotel Transylvania with no fear of guilt.

It’s a shame, it shouldn’t be like this, but I will continue to make the sacrifice for a more balanced home life and the knowledge that I’m as nice as I can be.

Obviously my experiences are just that: my experiences. They are narrow, non-prescriptive and reflect only a couple of companies within one industry. I’d love to know whether or not you think we need to compromise our niceness to get ahead.

15 Comments
  1. A really interesting post – I definitely do the ‘just’ thing – sometimes I go through at the end of drafting an email and make myself delete them all!

    I guess it depends on what drives you generally in life. When I was listening to all the tributes to Terry Wogan the one thing that stood out for me was just how NICE everyone thought he was. He apparently never lost his temper, was always friendly and generous with his time, and I thought as I was watching it that that’s all I really want when I die. I don’t want people to think of me and think ‘she was really top of her game, although a bit mean’ – I want people just to think I’m a nice, decent person. It certainly didn’t hold Terry back did it?

  2. A very to-the-point post, Alice, thank you! As a FT working mother, I question this day in day out. I think you are very lucky to be working for yourself. ( I am sure this also has challenges). I work in a big corporation. I am in the office before everyone else so that I can get home on time to spend 1 hour with my toddler before she goes to bed. I cannot afford to “appear” longer in the office as I need to pick up my daughter from the nursery or I cannot stay in for office politics/chitchat to ease my way in to promotion and I cannot claim much of the benefits of flexible working as this is for more senior people in the company (as also acknowledged by the senior females in the team!) I have to work harder and actually longer than most people ( I usually work in the evenings) and somehow this still is not enough. I consider myself to be a nice, helpful and hard working person and still, that is not enough! I don’t think I will compromise my niceness to get ahead, it’s against my nature, but then I think I will still be stuck at a level that’s sub-par for me and for my aspirations.

  3. This is something I’ve struggled with, in the past, and it’s left me wondering if I’m just not well suited to managing people. I find myself watching TV dramas and analysing how the managers/bosses are speaking to their team. I’ve been told in the past by my managers that I want to be liked too much, so struggle to manage people and situations effectively. So I’m much happier working for myself – with no one to manage (well, unless you count a five year old). It’s a really interesting topic though, and I think any woman who has nailed being an efficient boss and is liked by her team, well, she’s a genius in my eyes.
    Oh and YES I often wonder whether I should be less apologetic in my emails. I use “just” and “sorry” ALL THE TIME.

  4. A really interesting post. Most of my jobs involved managing people – sometimes as many as 40 – and I was always really nice to my team. I believed the way I treated my staff would be the way they treated the customers etc. Anyway, I’m going to try the email plugin!

  5. Back in the RAF in the 90´s we started getting women through as aircrew and as pilots for the first time ( I was on the for side before we continue ). A big mistake some of the pioneers made was to try and out ´guy´the guys – it just made for a false persona and it antagonised lots of people – there was a lot of sexist crap back then which we all grew out of in time. If you are dealing with a lot of alpha males ( and females too ) then first and foremost be very good at you do. Everybody may hate your guts but the sensible ones at least will respect your abilities. The really good women I have worked with ( and for ) manage across the whole emotional spectrum ( beloved through to bitch ) in order to get things done. Being liked is a bonus and if you are driving the bus then there is a logic to keeping a distance from your reports in case you need to toss one of them under it for whatever reason. If you are a ´nice´person it will come out anyway, but be good first. Personally I respect ( and fear ) the bitch more, as long as they are fair – and good.

  6. I never thought of ‘just’ in that way. You’ve really made me think with this piece. In PR, as I am, it’s a rare CEO that’s a woman. The highest they usually go in big firms is Director, as I did. Because of kids, etc, basically. But this is really changing, because, as you say, it’s codswallop that women can’t be the big boss. Or be there enough to be the big boss. It just takes a man with big balls and open enough ears to be able to listen to her, and follow her thinking. JUST SAYING.

  7. Having had our discussion on Twitter the other day I thought more about it and realised that actually when I did get ahead I had to actually be nicer then I wanted to be too. The total opposite. Just to keep people doing what I needed them too. Sounds nasty right but a bit of buttering up your team never went amiss!

  8. interesting piece… I’ve never really been in that situation, but I doubt I’d be very good – far too nice to get ahead!

  9. Graphic design is equally horrific. I once worked at an agency that had a room with two single beds. People (98% of the time MEN) used to stay all night on occasion. Menus were passed around at 8pm ish every night, to see what folks wanted for tea. One mum I could remember used to RUN out of the door at 6pm to start her journey of at least an hour home – I have no idea how she used to make it work. :(

    It’s utter bs. If we have to work such long hours, we should try splitting the work so more people work fewer hours. Totally agree on the ‘being nice’ thing too. And as I’m getting older I just find the super nice thing a bit fake – just goddam tell me if you need something doing!

  10. Such an interesting post Alice. Having children young has meant that I’ve never had a foot in the door of the corporate world so I’m afraid I have little experience to bring the the table. My working life has always been around my children and I worked in the charity social care sector that is dominated by women. I do however find myself using ‘just’ far too much in emails and apologising for my opinion. In pushing forward in my own business I have found it hard to balance being nice and approachable while also not getting taken for a ride and compromising on my goals and time frames. I’ll be interested to follow the comments on this for sure xx

  11. Hmm totally food for thought and will most like;y makes me read back over some of my emails, and consider how I write them. But tbh I do like being nice, I think its a great quality to have x

  12. I totally use the word ‘just’ way too much! I do think that being nice & polite & humble though are the way to go. I’m interested in trying out that app though! I stopped writing ‘sorry to bother you’ in emails when I was approaching people in my old job because it immediately makes people think you are bothering them! x

  13. My previous job: official hours 9-6pm. Generally, I was in 8 – 9pm. When desperately trying to find a way to keep my job post-Arlo, I was told by my bosses that only working my set hours was NOT OK, and that it would be impossible to fit in family life around the hours I was expected to work. Unsurprisingly, this job involved client-handling advertising execs, I had to mirror their working hours, be available at all times (and also for photographers and ridiculous print magazine deadlines), so I completely understand you on the unsuitable hours thing and the HUGE difference between your actual work hours and the hours that you are expected to put in.

    I was thinking about the soft language thing recently. I definitely try to take a softer tone with my emails – I hate sounding too ahrupt, yet I’ve noticed Sam’s email style is much more concise and he doesn’t seem to worry how he is coming across.

  14. This article is absolutely spot on. I regularly think that the “mean girls” at work get promoted much quicker than the nice girls. Like you, I don’t really want to be the office bitch just to get ahead. I am going to take a good look at my emails now though to see if I’m writing “just” or “sorry” too much!

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