Don’t Be a Jerk at Work. (But Don’t Be Too Nice, Either.) | Kanebridge News
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Don’t Be a Jerk at Work. (But Don’t Be Too Nice, Either.)

How devolving into people-pleasing can hold back your career

Tue, Aug 1, 2023 8:34amGrey Clock 4 min

How nice should you be at work?

We’ve supposedly moved on from the era of the militaristic chief executive who barks orders and threats. Most of us agree: We don’t like jerks. Be kind, we implore our kids.

Then we get to the office. We’ve got direct reports to rally, colleagues in other departments to convince and bosses who claim they want honest feedback. Speak with hesitation and you’re ignored. Handle your team with kid gloves and you’re a pushover, not a force to be reckoned with.

“I, personally, think you’re too nice a person to be in the job that you’re in.” That’s what Rep. Greg Murphy (R., N.C.) told Katherine Tai, the lead trade negotiator for the U.S., this spring during a hearing. His comments summed up feedback so many of us, especially women, have heard. We’re too bubbly or kind. We deploy too many apologies or exclamation marks. Yet when we do too little of all that, we’re overly aggressive.

“I want to be a nice person,” Sarah Kleinberg, the director of operations at a healthcare consulting firm, told me. She has realised, though, that being nice often makes others feel good, without actually moving a project forward or prompting a team member to improve.

“You have to have the level of confidence to be beyond people-pleasing,” she says.

‘Customer-service voice’

Many people, desperate not to offend, resort to what speaking coach Samara Bay calls “customer-service voice.” It’s that high-pitched, upspeak-y tone meant to inform the barista, I think you might be out of oat milk?

What are we saying when we use that tone? “I’m not powerful, don’t worry,” Bay says.

Making yourself non intimidating and as small as possible might work earlier in careers, she adds, making the people in charge feel secure. But as we ascend, or try to, the wavering voices can confuse others. Do it enough and people might question whether you’re leadership material, Bay says.

She recommends a vocal exercise for speaking more confidently. Pretend that you’re introducing yourself—“Hi, my name is Rachel”—while throwing a pretend ball against the wall. Match your vocal pitch to the ball’s trajectory. When you throw the ball down to the ground, you’ll hear your voice droop in energy along with the ball. Then throw the ball up, and notice the way your words sound as if you’re half taking them back. Last, throw the ball straight and allow your words to follow through, too.

“It’s the weirdest feeling to say something and mean it all the way to the end,” Bay says. “It feels brave.”

No hedging allowed

When pitching an idea, don’t undercut yourself with hedging language, says Bob Bordone, a negotiations coach. He cringes at questions like: “Would you be willing to consider letting me work remotely on Fridays?”

“It makes me just want to say no because it’s such a weak thing,” he says.

Instead, he says, start with a statement: “I wanted to talk to you about working out a new schedule.” Assure that any agreement you come to would be good for your manager and the company.

When someone tells you no, Bordone suggests trying: “How can we tackle this, even though we see it differently?” You sound strong and assertive, but not nasty, he says.

Good news for the nice guys among us: You don’t have to give up your personality to be taken seriously.

“I’m, 99.9% of the time, a jovial, happy-go-lucky guy,” says Colton Schweitzer, a user-experience designer and educator in Vancouver, Wash. When he doesn’t like the direction a project is going, he pushes back by asking questions and inserting the occasional joke.

“I’m smiling,” he says, “Even when I’m saying, ‘Are you sure about that?’”

Because he’s so pleasant, his serious moments carry weight. At one job, he cheerfully took on more work when colleagues asked—until his manager asked him to pick up the slack for an underperforming employee. He gave a resolute no. His manager dropped the issue, and seemed surprised and impressed by his response, he says.

“It’s like a currency,” he says of invoking a more stern style. “When I use it, it’s really valuable.”

Less yelling, more intensity

To be tough but not jerky, set clear expectations, says Harry Kraemer, a professor of leadership at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Before teaching, Kraemer rose to be chief executive of Baxter International, the healthcare company where he worked for 25 years. As a new manager, he would try to be everyone’s breezy friend, shrugging it off when his team turned in a project hours past deadline. The second time it happened, he devolved into yelling, only to realise he hadn’t made the stakes clear from the start.

“If I focus on being liked, the chance of being respected is very low,” he says.

He adopted a new leadership style of, “I’m not going to surprise you.” He says the yelling just made him look out of control, but following through with consequences worked. When his team missed sales targets, he gathered them for a two-hour debrief—no smiling, his voice intense.

“I don’t need a sorry,” he would tell them. “Hit the number. Do what you told me you were going to do.”

Dinah Davis, a Realtor in Highlands, N.C., still remembers advice an old friend gave her years ago on the golf course. The friend was a skilled neurosurgeon known for being direct, not touchy-feely.

“I have a great bedside manner,” she told Davis. “I just don’t have time for it.”

The advice was freeing for Davis, a former lawyer more comfortable with staunch negotiations than chirpy small talk.

“Do you want your pilot to be nice?” Davis asks. “Or do you want your pilot to get the plane on the ground?”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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