The Problem With Being Nice At Work

Photographed by Eva K Salvi.
Maybe it’s the nursery rhyme that trips us up; I’ve been repeating it in my head ever since I started thinking about this story. “Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of.” In a recent survey by the accounting firm KPMG, 86% of women said that, as children, they were taught the importance of being "nice" — far fewer said they were encouraged to share their opinions.

Somehow, that lesson stuck with us. It influences all areas of our lives — especially at work. And it’s not because we want to be friends with everyone at the office. In fact, it often feels like if we don’t play the likability game, we’ll end up with a far worse label: bitch. But is being nice holding us back?

For example, do you find yourself saying "yes" to every request that comes across your desk, especially those of the lowly “office housework” variety? Maybe you volunteer to plan a coworker’s goodbye party. Maybe, even though you’ve moved beyond the assistant stage, you find yourself doing administrative tasks because someone has to do it. Maybe you even think that kind of "can-do" spirit will be noticed and appreciated. Maybe you tell yourself this, right up until the moment you don’t get the raise you were hoping for.

“People don’t get high-profile projects, win promotions, or make a name in their field because they planned office parties or remembered all their coworkers' birthdays,” says Alison Green, founder of Ask A Manager. “You only have so much energy and focus at work; spending on this sort of housekeeping means that you’re not spending it where it will actually benefit you. You want to be known as a great engineer / spokesperson / lawyer / whatever your job is — not as a great baker [unless that's your job] or fill-in receptionist or office mom."

“Too often, women find themselves always being the ones to take notes, clean up the kitchen, order lunch, and do other caretaking work, while their male colleagues in similar roles get to focus on doing work that’s more highly valued,” Green continues. “That can have very real and very long-lasting ramifications for who gets what projects, who gets what recognition, and who builds what reputation.”

It can be tough not to take on office housework — and it’s not always as simple as saying "no." Maybe you’re a nurturing person and you enjoy worrying about your colleagues. So many of us are perfectionists who think, But it’s just easier to do this myself. And, let's admit, there’s often a little, tiny martyr in us who takes on tasks because we feel like no one else will.
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Photographed by Phoebe Chuason.
Tara Sophia Mohr, author of Playing Big, encourages you to take a critical look at your own situation and compare it to others in your workplace:

"Do powerful people in the organization do these tasks? Do the people who do it advance? Does your boss seem to recognize the skills that go into this work that relate to other professional tasks? If the answer to questions like these is 'no,' then you probably want to dial back on the office housework — especially if you don't enjoy it.

"If you feel like you are doing something wrong by declining office housework, you may back-pedal when trying to set the boundary, or express [yourself] in a tentative way. So first, get clear with yourself that it's really okay to decline, that you deliver extraordinary value in other ways, and that the best use of your time and talents to the organization is not doing this... Then, go ahead and warmly but unapologetically decline. And remember that even if someone is a little disappointed...with you at first, that doesn't mean it was the wrong move."

It can be scary to suggest change like this, which all goes back to the likability issue. But part of being successful is learning to speak up for yourself and ask for what you want; that's a leadership skill your boss will appreciate, even if it’s intimidating to initiate.

Mohr argues there are different reasons women worry about likability. Some feel trapped by the need to be likable, which can be super-limiting. She suggests taking a look at the roots of that desire — where did it come from? What fears arise if you imagine not being liked by someone? “By getting more conscious about all this and working through it, women start to feel a new peace not being liked by everyone,” Mohr adds.

Once you learn to say "no," it’s also important to encourage others to make a change. These cultural shifts are imperative and make the workplace a better environment for everyone. Once you become the decision-maker, you have the power to oversee an even distribution of those office-housekeeping tasks. Green encourages everyone at work to speak up for this cause: “One of the best things you can do...is to simply point it out," she argues. "Speak up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed that this work always falls to women. Can we change that?’”

In the end, you can be nice and still stand up for yourself. Sheryl Sandberg was right when she wrote, "The person taking diligent notes in the meeting almost never makes the killer point." So put down your pen and start speaking up. You’ll be glad you did.
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