The Myth of the Nice Girl

Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate
By Fran Hauser

In The Myth of the Nice Girl, Fran Hauser says the question she’s been asked most over the course of her career is, “How can you be so nice … and still be successful?” She explores this myth of the nice girl in her book, the tricky balance between being seen as a pushover and people-pleaser and being seen as an ambitious leader effective at their job (or perhaps veering too far into the “bitch” label territory). Fran says in her Author’s Note that even just the word “nice” is emotionally loaded for women, and she wants to rebrand the word to not mean a meek people pleaser but someone who uses “authentic kindness to sidestep regressive stereotypes about what a strong leader looks like. There is real power hidden in traits like empathy, kindness, and compassion that are undervalued in the business world When coupled with an appropriate dose of savvy and ambition, these overlooked superpowers can help launch your career to the top.”

Nice as a Superpower

In her early 20s, one of Fran’s bosses said she was “yessing” the client to death, and that only saying “yes” and “that’s interesting” in meetings makes her less interesting than sharing opinions. She had been waiting for someone to give her permission to share her opinions. She started adding her opinion and the client saw its value and eventually started asking her opinion. Another huge turning point was learning that a mentor’s advice may not always be right for her, when she was told to stop worrying about what other people thought while she was trying to get buy-in from other people before meetings. She went above one notoriously slow co-worker’s head to get a fast “yes” but ended up damaging that relationship and had to stick to her gut and apologize and explain to that co-worker the pressure she was under to get that fast “yes.” In other words, being nice. She says her niceness made it easier to speak up, push back, and voice opinions because she wasn’t trying to be something she was not. A colleague told her that “nice is your capital” and it was why people called her back and why they drop what they are doing to help her. She later explains that nice means someone who “cares deeply about other people and who wants to connect with them, who is guided by a strong sense of values to do the right thing. She is considerate, respectful, and kind…fair, collaborative, and generous.”

Five Ways to Respond When People Say you Are Too Nice

Ask a follow-up question such as “How do you think this is hurting me?” or try an answer below:

  1. I know, and it’s really served me well.
  2. Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.
  3. You say that as if it is something negative.
  4. I’ve come to realize that it is actually possible to be nice and strong. They are not mutually exclusive.
  5. It’s better than the alternative … who wants to deal with a jerk?

Be Ambitious and Likeable

Fran says you can have both qualities, starting by taking credit for your own accomplishments. Tell a story, nominate yourself, do it one-on-one, and be inclusive (share the credit when its deserved). Step up and accept higher positions because you aren’t expected to meet 100% of the qualifications, avoiding the “confidence gap” that often plagues women. Create opportunities for yourself, exploring area or topics your company is not yet handling and asking to take these on yourself (with buy-in from your colleagues that it could be a good idea, before asking the boss).

Speak Up Assertively and Nicely

Strategies to authentically speak up in meetings:

  • Look at the agenda or ask the meeting convener about the topics of the meeting and prepare thoughts to discuss in advance.
  • Make a commitment to make at least one valuable comment per meeting.
  • Instead of waiting for an opening (as interrupting goes against the ingrained sense of being nice), speak first when a topic is opened for comments, using a stock phrase such as “I have a suggestion,” “I did some informal research and found…” or “Here’s what I’ve been thinking…”
  • Have stock phrases to help jump into the middle of a conversation, such as, “I really like that perspective, and …” “That reminds me of…” or “Following on that, I wonder if we…”

Don’t fall into the trap of speech weakeners, such as over-apologizing, saying “I might be wrong about this but..” saying “I feel” instead of “I know” or asking it as a question (up-speak at the end of a sentence).

Disagreeing nicely can be tricky as well. Here are some of the phrases Fran uses:

  • I completely respect where you are coming from on this, and…
  • That’s a valid point, and… (notice using “and” instead of “but”)
  • Let’s explore this together, tell me a little more about…
  • It sounds to me like we both want…
  • Let me share with you (not “Let me tell you”)

Phrases to use when dealing with a bully:

  • Please don’t talk to me that way.
  • Let’s try to get this conversation to a place where it can be productive.
  • Let’s take a break and come back to this later

Give Feedback Directly and Kindly

Fran describes her first role managing people and how she was good at supporting her team until it came to giving negative feedback. “I did what any ‘nice girl’ would do … I completely avoided it!” Instead, she redid the weak teammates’ work, but knew this was not sustainable. She sought help with this issue and realized she was doing a disservice to the weak teammate by not letting them learn how to improve their work or performance. Her boss suggested finding out the deeper issue behind problems such as chronic lateness with projects, for example, perhaps the person are great at the numbers and charts but get stuck on the writing and could use help or delegation with improving the writing. Beginning the conversation by talking about the positive aspects of the teammates’ work naturally led into a kind discussion about what could be improved and how to help improve it. Making sure to have specific examples of the performance to support your feedback, so it doesn’t seem generalized and vague, which is not believable or helpful, therefore not kind. Be confident in their ability to improve.

Additional Important Topics

Making decisions firmly and collaboratively using evidence-based confidence and pulling in the stakeholders, learning that failure is part of business and happens to everyone, and risk not only holds the threat of failure but the promise of success are other important topics discussed in the book. Negotiating with strategy and empathy to bridge the wage gap (know your value, focus on communal benefits, know all the levers to push and pull such as perks, time it right, get the data, represent others), investing in yourself while being a team player by growing your network within and outside your company, set boundaries for yourself and be caring (don’t always say yes to last-minute requests or you will resent being taken advantage of … which is not caring), delivering a “kind no” by not apologizing but saying “thank you for the opportunity, I’ve cut back on this to focus on this, so I can’t take this on right now, but I wish you the best of luck” or “Thank you for thinking of me, my plate is full for next quarter, or I’m not sure I’m the right person for X, you need someone who focuses on…,” and finally, mentoring (do not use the term “pick your brain”) are also topics covered in the book.

About the Author

Fran Hauser is a media executive and startup investor who has held senior positions at companies such as People, InStyle, AOL, and Moviephone. She is now an angel investor for female founders and has been featured in CNBC, Forbes, Vogue, Ad Age, and more.

Buy The Myth of the Nice Girl on Amazon.

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