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Can Women Be Too Nice for Business?

May 26, 2010

Being overly nice as a business woman may be costing you money  — or maybe not. A number of new articles and blog posts report a mixed bag of opinions about women and whether niceness is a business asset or a career-advancing hindrance.

On the one hand, as reported by Psychology Today, “many companies have been abandoning their emphasis on stereotypical male qualities like assertiveness and seeking workers with interpersonal sensitivity and people skills.” In other words, traits that are usually associated with women, according to the article.

However, other experts and research suggest that aggressiveness and arrogance — qualities usually associated with men — are the keys to business success.

For example, a 2007 British study, Does it Pay to be too Nice? Personality and Earnings in the U.K., found that women who adopt a masculine, alpha-female approach in the office earn up to 4 percent more than their more passive female colleagues.

Personality traits were found to be as important as intelligence in determining a woman’s salary, according to the study. Yet, personality traits barely affected a man’s earning potential.

Will Business Jerks Continue to Rule?

A blog from Clay Shirky, A Rant About Women, touched on this topic by pondering whether women are at least partly to blame for the glass ceiling.

“This worry isn’t about psychology; I’m not concerned that women don’t engage in enough building of self-confidence or self-esteem,” she writes. “I am worried about something much simpler: not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.”

Here’s one response to Shirky’s controversial blog (so far, more than 500 responses):

“We all know and hate self-aggrandizing jerks in the workplace (unless, of course, you are one of them), and one of the reasons we hate them is because they are usually the ones who get the raises, the promotions and the best assignments,” writes Cathy Arnst in her BusinessWeek blog, Working Parents.

A Double Standard for Nice

A double standard still exists, according to Psychology Today. Citing a study by Peter Glick, a professor of psychology at Lawrence University in Wisconsin: “Women perceived as being more competitive were deemed competent for the job but also less sociable than other candidates and thus, less hirable. Competent men, however, were described as hirable even if they weren’t socially adept.”

Still, Glick sees a larger trend developing — what he calls the feminization of companies. As a result, it may be the collaborative skills of women that will make them better managers and more successful business women in the long run.

In other words, it may ultimately pay for women to play nice at work.

Striking a Balance: “Professionally Friendly”

As with most conundrums, perhaps the best answer lies somewhere in the middle.

According to Jessica Stillman, on her BNET blog, Entry-Level Rebel: “For women in particular, deciding on how nice to be at work is a continuous balancing act. Be too nice and you risk being ineffective and gaining an unhelpful reputation as a pushover. Go too far in the other direction and, to put it bluntly, you may be viewed as a bitch.”

In a recent Forbes.com article, Trisha Scudder, the said the key is to be professional friendly, focusing on employee contributions and helping employees achieve career goals without being overly kind.

Some “professional friendly” guidelines for women business leaders, according to the Forbes.com article:

  • Don’t protect underperforming workers — be fair.
  • Don’t gossip — stay above the fray.
  • Don’t try to be one of the gang — teach your workers.
  • Don’t try to do it all — make direct and substantial requests of your workers.

“While empathy is a valuable trait, and understanding employees’ problems is important, your job isn’t to be everyone’s friend,” Scudder said. “Your job is to be the boss.”

In Your Shoes is created by Johnston & Murphy, offering quality shoes and outerwear for women and men. We welcome your comments and contributions.

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