Leadership Tutorial II (for women): To Be Nice or Not To Be

Last night I was reading chapter 3 of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.  Like prior chapters, there’s good information within it.  Much of it has been known for some time, but Sandberg has a way of communicating her ideas conversationally.  She applies the concepts to today.  Her examples are useful.  And she’s done her homework in terms of research support with some need for opposing views.

Having said that, this chapter has a few suggestions that invite alternative or additional perspectives — a little acquired wisdom.

After you’ve read this book for a while, it’s clear that Sandberg is still dealing with the contradictions inherent in being a career-successful woman.  I add career to success because there are many forms of success.  And to her credit, Sandberg agrees.  She also seems to still be grappling in chapter 3 with the issue of taking credit for one’s accomplishments.  After explaining that women often don’t “toot their own horns,” she wrote:  “Owning one’s success is key to achieving more success.  Professional advancement depends upon people believing that an employee is contributing to good results.”  Absolutely!  Good observation.  Women need to believe in themselves and own their successes.  And to savor them as well.

Sandberg then wrote, “For women, taking credit comes at a real social and professional cost.” People expect women to be communal in their approach — to do things for the greater good. Even a raise, it’s implied, should be framed as for the good of others.

Society has shaped men and women differently.  Expectations are different with regard to how we present ideas.  My navigational advice to my husband used to be, “I think this is the exit” when I KNEW it was the exit.  Why was I saying “I think” as he went driving by where we clearly needed to go?  I’d been taught to say things more as suggestion than direction.  I now say, THIS IS THE EXIT!

In the same vein, women use more disclaimers (“This is nothing big”) and aligning actions (e.g., “I hope this doesn’t upset anyone” or “This may sound stupid, but…”).  We do.  The better approach is applying these sparingly.  Don’t demean what you have to say as it comes out of your mouth.

If you must say something in way of introduction, consider, “Here is my view given what I’ve learned so far” or “Hear me out on this one.  It’s an idea in progress.”  Such statements soften but don’t apologize.  They are used by men and women.  And no one should use them too often. Sometimes “I see your point, but I have a different view” is fine.  Or, simply, “Let’s look at this another way.”

Here is where my view deviates from Sandberg.  She has advised many women to preface their negotiations “explaining that they know that women often get paid less than men so they are going to negotiate rather than accept the original offer.”  In this way, the woman is not negotiating so much for herself as for her group.  She has essentially made an excuse for being assertive.  I suppose that’s fine now and then.  It works once, maybe twice in the same organization.  It’s still an aligning action that diminishes the woman’s worth as an employee — as an individual.  It signals that she won’t ask for something because she deserves it.  And if this boss can keep her worried about asking for things, she won’t.

There is much to be said for knowing your audience.  If the person with whom you’re negotiating pay or a raise seems to be the type that doesn’t respect assertive women, then using this approach may save some time.   Frankly, it makes me gag.  But, go ahead.  Once in a while for high stakes, why not go back to being a woman who must not ask for anything she deserves unless couched in the good it does for some part or the whole of society.  (Note to self:  You’re being sarcastic, Reardon.  Aren’t you?  Yes, a little.)  It is annoying that women STILL need to do this.

Sandberg then writes that women should use “we” rather than “I” when negotiating for themselves.  Actually too many “I” pronouns is bad for men and women.  Always count the number of “I” usages in e-mails and presentation practices.  Strike a balance.  But when women go around using the collective “we” too often, they risk being perceived as not having leadership potential.  That’s the long and short of it.  The prevailing wisdom created by such demureness: “She’s a nice person, but she can’t lead in this place.  They’ll crush her.  She doesn’t know how to fight her corner.”

It’s hard to talk about your accomplishments if you’re a woman.  But find a way within your company’s culture.  You have the job, now do it!  Demonstrate your ability.  Sure, be nice — especially to nice people.  But don’t be talking about “we” all the time when the guys are talking about “I.”  Learn when “I” matters.  If you can’t go that far yet, try something like,  “With the help of a lot of great people, I closed that deal.”

Why would anyone use the same strategy over and over?  It makes you predictable.  That’s the kiss of death in business.  You can be managed when you’re predictable.  It’s likely that Sandberg was not recommending a steady diet of “we” comments.  Yet, it must be said that simply because society imposes different expectations on women does not mean it’s necessary to always abide by them.  Being aware of them is critical.  Deviating from them is a necessity.  When you’re predictable people can manage you like a puppet.  They know what to expect.  You’ll be nice.  You’ll back down.  You’ll run from the “bitch”label.

When I say during a speech, “You’re looking at a bitch,” it always gets a laugh.  But, it’s partially true.  I’m very nice.  But not to everyone all of the time.  I’m a former debater.  If you want to go a few rounds, we’re going.  And it will be memorable!

Be nice.  But not always.  Choose your strategies for getting ahead.  Yes, most people prefer women to be communal and caring.  But if you work at a place where that is seen as weakness, you’d better get yourself a new gig or learn to speak the language.  While you’re at it, observe whether you’re talking too softly.  When you’re about to make an important point, consider saying “Now this is key” or “Listen to this.”  Add importance or urgency to your best suggestions.

Be nice.  Why not?  Just not all the time with all people.  Otherwise your chance at leadership is limited.



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