Being nice is ‘an asset with an asterisk,’ one leadership expert told Moneyish
Nice guys finish first.
At least, that seems to be senior White House aide Johnny DeStefano’s operating principle. The West Wing worker has weathered unprecedented turnover and watched his portfolio swell, Politico reports, by choosing “the old-fashioned way … being nice to everyone.” DeStefano, who now oversees the political, personnel and public liaison offices, reportedly shies from the spotlight, avoids picking sides and fosters relationships “by coming across as nonthreatening.”
“Johnny has had a standing weekly appointment to talk about personnel with the president. They’ve come to know each other better,” top aide Kellyanne Conway told Politico. “Johnny does not sugarcoat bad news, and often compliments a colleague’s efforts where others might spend that time puffing up themselves.”
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Leadership expert Todd Dewett defines “being nice” at work as positive words, gestures or behaviors “shared by a person who is reasonably respected.” The benefits, of course, are plentiful: “Being nice makes people more comfortable, more open to speaking freely, more willing to have you around because you’re not a problem,” Dewett told Moneyish. “Sometimes — whether it’s fair or not — being nice and well-liked (and) congenial can actually be as important as actual expertise or track record.” The goodwill you accrue can serve as “social credits” to be cashed in later, added career coach Maggie Mistal.
Not only can niceness boost your longevity at a job, said Pivot career coach and Bates College psychology lecturer Rebecca Fraser-Thill, it can help you play the long game. “You’re building a network, even when you’re in a job and not planning to go anywhere,” she said. “You’re going to be much more likely, when you have to move on to the next role, to be thought of in a positive light — and that’s invaluable for sure.”
But a consistently nice demeanor is “an asset with an asterisk,” Dewett said, as it can make you seem unwilling to engage in tough conversations around things like innovation and hiring decisions. In certain scenarios, he said, “you have to be critical and specific and very candid — and the nice people have difficulty with that because they don’t want to ruffle feathers.”
And as with so many situations in life, the balancing act can be a lose-lose for women in the workplace. “There’s a stereotype that women can be quite passive in nature. There’s also a stereotype that if a woman speaks her mind at all, she is aggressive,” Fraser-Thill said. “So there’s a catch-22 of trying to walk a line there.”
Women often learn “Mean Girls”-style social and relational aggression from a young age, added Fraser-Thill, making them skilled at forming cliques, ostracizing, rumor-spreading and undercutting others in subtle ways. “If you’re not willing to do that,” she said, “it can be challenging to feel like you have a social group within your workplace — particularly for women.”
Another downside, per Mistal: You might be nice to the point where you can’t stand up for yourself against someone who’s in the wrong. “Any strength, when overused, becomes a weakness — and being nice is one of those,” she said. “If it’s to a fault, and you get taken advantage of in that process, then that’s a weakness.” You might also take on a burdensome workload because you have trouble saying no — but if you underperform or fail to follow through, she said, “you’ll actually end up making yourself look not nice.”
Ultimately, Mistal added, nice people don’t tend to stick around a cutthroat work environment.
“Ideally, you’re in a workplace where the culture is in some way aligned with your values,” Fraser-Thill said. “And if you’re in a culture where they are choosing promotions based on who is in the ‘in’ crowd, and the ‘in’ crowd is based on who’s being socially aggressive, you might want to step back and think: Is this a workplace that I want to be in? Is this an industry that I want to be in?”
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