Being Nice at Work (& as a Leader) Doesn't Hold You Back
By Brie Rangel
On a hot, Houston summer day this past June, Daniel (my husband) came home from work like any other day.
However, rather than greeting me in my office -- which sits right off our front door -- he found me at the kitchen table with a glass of red wine.
“What are you doing in here?” Daniel asked.
As soon as I opened my mouth to answer him, I burst into tears.
I started to tell him about my day -- unfortunately, I couldn't answer him in any sort of coherent way, through my sobs.
"Take a break, slow down," he said. "Start from the beginning."
So, I did.
An Ordinary Meeting That Made Me Question Everything
I had just come off a nine-hour IMPACT leadership team meeting. (No, it wasn't the fact that it was nine hours that made me cry.)
Each month, the IMPACT leadership team gets together for a day to discuss progress against our organizational objectives, address issues that need to be addressed globally within the company, and talk about future business plans.
Even though it's a full day's worth of candid discussion, brainstorming, and problem-solving, I typically feel invigorated and ready to take on the next month, following those meetings.
I know I represent my department the best I can, fight for what I think is right for the company, and bring my A-game every time.
(I even put on jeans instead of my beloved yoga pants, even though my leadership team peers only see me from the shoulders up. #remotelife)
We don’t necessarily battle in these meetings, but things can get heated because we’re all so passionate.
I love getting to express this passion since I usually tend to be more reserved and collected, especially in front of those I manage. The leadership team meeting is a space where I can speak freely without judgement.
Until that day in June.
After a long day, as we were wrapping up and discussing how the meeting went, I was called "sweet."
No, it wasn't a compliment. It was a direct answer to the question of how we could improve -- and I, specifically, was advised that I could stop being so nice.
My immediate reaction is that I was being called weak, or someone who lacked the necessary passion to be a leader.
So, whereas I normally walk away from these meetings feeling like I communicated effectively -- that I’m strong and that I’m meant to be in a leadership position -- that comment made me question everything.
But then I decided questioning myself was a stupid exercise.
I started my career at 22 as a graphic designer for a small resort in middle-of-nowhere Missouri.
Within 10 years, I became the VP of Services at IMPACT, an award-winning inbound marketing agency.
I didn't achieve that in spite of being nice. I've gotten to where I am because I'm nice.
Mad Men Is Alive & Well in Some Corners of New York City
I love being nice. In fact, I pride myself on it.
When I was in second grade, I remember vividly my dad picking me up from a friend’s house and talking to my friend’s parents while I fiddled around a little more.
On the way home, he told me that my friend’s mom said I was the nicest girl her daughter knew. He also told me, with a boastful smile, it wasn’t the first time he’s heard that from other parents.
This moment of making my dad proud by being myself has stuck with me ever since. Being nice matters to people.
Fast-forward to my junior year of college, I went on a trip to New York City through the Mizzou School of Journalism strategic communications program.
We visited seven advertising agencies to learn more about the industry and where we could fall within it once we graduated.
How did it go? Well, I'll say this...
Even though the Mad Men-era was 50 years ago, the culture of advertising being a dog-eat-dog world is still alive and well -- especially on the famous Madison Avenue. Sadly, this culture is also romanticized, even though we all see fault in it.
So, quite frankly, while I didn't meet everyone at each of the agency's we visited, a large majority of those I did meet on that that trip were jerks.
(That may sound flippant, but when I say “jerk,” I mean six out of the seven agencies we went to were full of people who must have been directly transported from 1965 through some sort of time machine.)
They were proud to step on their peers’ toes to win a pitch.
They thought it was funny how they could waste client money for “big ideas” whether they got results or not.
They stopped working in the early afternoon to drink in their fully stocked bar in the break room.
In general, they were more attracted to the idea of the Mad Men culture than doing good work for clients who genuinely needed help.
I decided right then that I would never move to New York City to work at a big, traditional agency. This was not my tribe.
An Agency That Believed in the Power of Nice
Kaplan Thaler -- now part of Publicis, a global agency based in Paris -- stood out from all of the rest. Of all the agencies we went to, it was the only one with memorable work we all actually knew.
(If you’ve ever heard of the Aflac commercials, you might also be familiar with their work.)
As we walked in their conference room for a presentation about their agency, I expected the owner to stand up and say how amazing they are for a couple hours. Then, they would get us drinks to show us how hip they are.
Instead, the creatives behind the Aflac campaign introduced themselves and told us the story of how the duck came to life. They were funny, engaging, and exuded passion for their work.
When they were done, Linda Kaplan Thaler, the agency principal, closed out our session.
Thaler talked about her agency -- but not in a misplaced, prideful way. She talked about their culture, and how we, as students, could get ahead by following one simple rule:
In the advertising world. In New York City.
She then handed us all free copies of her book, The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness. I tore into the book on the plane ride home and immediately saw myself in it.
Nice Translates into Healthier Organizations
In the book, Thaler talks about how “nice” companies have lower employee turnover, lower recruitment costs, and higher productivity. She also gives personal examples of how being nice can serve you in making more money in life, and being happier and healthier.
This book could not have come into my life at a better time.
The University of Missouri School of Journalism is an amazing educational program, but it is not always a nice place.
My friends and I seemed like the only people who realized that one day we might all be coworkers and should focus on building ourselves up, not tearing each other down.
That's why, when I read The Power of Nice, I was relieved.
It was a gentle reminder that I was operating under my values and didn’t have to change to conform to some strange culture within the education system or business world.
There’s an odd sense of purpose when you stop trying to be something you’re not.
I’ve noticed a recurring theme in myself that the universe always provides nice wakeup call moments like this -- and that is when I start to cave under the pressure to act a certain way that is not inherently myself, I fail.
Conformity Is Not a Necessity
When I first started at IMPACT, I was on the receiving end of a lot of coaching around needing to be more assertive.
I was working as a strategist with clients who needed to trust me. When I’d discuss communication challenges I was having with my mentors, I was told I wasn’t confident and needed to be more bold.
The only issue is I was confident. That wasn't a problem.
(By the way, telling a confident person to be more confident is very confusing advice.)
I knew I was smart and I knew the strategy I was prescribing was the right thing to do. I knew I could educate and obtain buy-in from my clients.
After so much feedback stating the opposite of how I felt, I started to doubt myself.
I googled things like, “how to be more assertive.”
But I only found worthless articles like these:
- 11 Ways To Stop Being Too Nice At Work & Start Being Assertive (but...I like being nice. We’ve established this. Why can’t I be both?)
- Stop Being Nice All the Time and Start Embracing Your Inner Bitch (Ugh! Since when does bitch equate to leadership?)
- Do More, Apologize Less – How Bitches Get Ahead in Business (How does doing more lead to apologizing less? And there’s that “bitch” word again…)
Even googling "being nice at work" is demoralizing:
Then, I realized something.
Why do I have to be a bitch to get ahead?
I’m going to go into this at some point in another article at a later date, but I do want to acknowledge here that there is a problem with our society coaching women to be a bitch to get ahead.
You don’t need to be a bitch, and neither do I.
But back to this moment when I had given up on Google.
Whenever I start to doubt myself -- which was starting to happen in this moment, since I couldn’t figure out my client communication issues and was being told it was because I wasn’t assertive -- I ground myself by listing out my accomplishments.
This helps me remember that I don’t completely suck at life and this one little blip doesn’t define me. Looking at my list gives me a wake up call to focus on the real issue rather than let self-doubt navigate and muddy my thought process.
I sat down in that moment and made a list in my Evernote called “Things.”
I blurred it out, but, as you can see, it’s really called “Things.”
Turns out it was a pretty long list.
I could stop worrying that I wasn’t doing a good job or in the wrong profession, because I clearly was and just needed to fix this one problem.
When I fully contemplated the real issue, and how it was perceived that I wasn’t assertive enough, I realized that I was communicating to the C-suite level contacts within my accounts the same way I was communicating to the marketing managers.
I was giving way too much detail, talking way too long before getting to the point and providing data that wasn’t helpful to them.
I instead worked on improving the real issue -- focusing on tailoring my messaging based on my audience in conversations, not my confidence.
Earn Trust by Trusting Yourself
As I’ve stepped into in a leadership role at IMPACT, I have had to play my list game more times than I’d like to admit.
The problems I’ve uncovered about myself are not as simple as tweaking how I communicate.
The larger problem is any advice I seek out online is so twisted and stereotypical into how a leader should act.
This stressed me out when I first became a manager. The advice I’d read simply did not align with my values.
(I don’t want to be a bitch, okay?)
So, instead of trying to fit into the archaic mold of leadership, I focused on what I could control and the levers that would catapult me the quickest into becoming an effective leader; that being my strengths.
If you haven’t heard of StrengthsFinder, it’s a book and concept that says to focus on your strengths vs. trying to improve your weaknesses.
You take an assessment and find out what your top strengths are, and each one is categorized into four themes: Strategic Thinking, Executing, Influencing, and Relationship Building.
According to my assessment, my top strengths are:
- Strategy (Strategic Thinking)
- Achiever (Executing)
- Competition (Relationship Building)
- Ideation (Strategic Thinking)
- Focus (Executing).
In looking at my own strengths, I am equally strong in strategy and execution, but have zero influencing strengths.
I have a team of directors that report to me, and I bet you can guess which strength theme I was looking for to complement the team.
Once I started to focus on myself over what books and articles told me to be, I started growing faster in my career than I ever have.
Being Called "Sweet" Was a Gut Punch
"Wait, what about that leadership meeting?"
To illustrate the full blow of being called sweet in the context of that leadership meeting in June, let me backup to start of this year.
In January, IMPACT and The Sales Lion officially merged. If you aren’t familiar, The Sales Lion was led by Marcus Sheridan, international speaker and author of They Ask, You Answer.
Prior to forming The Sales Lion, Marcus ran a swimming pool company that cracked the code on inbound marketing, which he wrote about extensively in his book.
A lot of people know him from his teachings -- but for me, I had been a fan of his since 2011, when I was working in a digital marketing agency that specializes in swimming pool marketing.
I have followed his career ever since.
So, when his career led him to IMPACT, it was a surreal moment for me. He sits on our leadership team, and now I’m in a strategic business meeting with someone I’ve admired for so many years.
He was the one who called me “sweet,” and when he did, I was crushed.
Immediately, I thought, “Great. Marcus Sheridan thinks I’m weak.”
Why "Sweet" Sounded Like "Weak" to Me
To be fair, Marcus wasn’t trying to insinuate anything other than I was perhaps holding back. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and further proves the point of the title of this article.
But, at the time, I didn’t know Marcus very well.
We had been in a handful of meetings together, but hadn’t had a full conversation with just the two of us yet.
I don’t even remember the full conversation of how saying I was sweet was a negative thing -- but my instant reaction was that he was trying to make me fit a mold of being an “assertive, bitch boss,” that I would never want to be.
It also struck a nerve because it pointed out an area I already know is not a strength -- my influence over others.
As much as I know focusing on my strengths has helped me improve the most, the fact of the matter is I still lead a department and need to find some kind of way to influence and motivate others.
The combination of feeling resentful that I was being misjudged and my insecurities spilling over that I wasn’t influential is what made me so upset.
I let the noise of my fear cloud the real issue he was trying to address.
Getting to the Bottom of the Real Issue
The next day, I talked to Chris Duprey, our COO, about how I was feeling.
Chris suggested I reach out to Marcus to build a better relationship with him. He knew him better than I did at the time and could see the our lack of alignment happening in real-time.
I took his advice, and I set up a call and learned more about where Marcus was coming from with his feedback.
In our meeting, he said I am intelligent with visible passion for our organization, but have a tendency to undersell myself and my ideas.
"Oh. That wasn’t so bad. He didn’t tell me I’m completely inadequate to do my job," I thought to myself.
Was he telling me I need to yell in those meetings? No.
Was he telling me I need to be more assertive? No.
Was he telling me to be a bitch boss? Hell no.
He coached me on choosing better words and remaining firm in my delivery of an idea. That makes a lot more sense to someone who is already confident. My delivery is off.
I have since caught myself on three occasions using passive language vs. active language when stating my idea. So, in my head, I changed up how I was going to say something at the last minute and used a calm, but firm tone to show how I really felt about it. And it worked.
Once I was able to -- again -- let go of the worry around what was happening and focus instead on the real issue, and what I could control to fix it, I was able to grow.
Find & Master Your Own Style
I share all of this to you, you confident, calm, reserved, thoughtful leader, to show you that you don’t have to change what’s good about you.
Instead, focus on how to make what makes you great, even better. You can have your own style and still be effective.
Maybe you like being weird. Maybe you have pink hair. Maybe you love Star Wars -- hi, Chris. Whatever is your thing, it’s okay!
You don’t need to fit into the age-old mold of what a great leader is. You only need to focus on the real challenges you’re experiencing from a lense of what you can control and improve on your own.
Being nice is perfectly acceptable.
In fact, introverted leaders, most of whom I’ve met are nice, end up creating the strongest teams of high performers.
Keep your chin up. The world needs more nice people like you.
Wondering where to begin?