Many of you have probably seen the Labels Against Women add that Pantene put out recently. It explores how the same action taken by a man is interpreted differently (and sometimes negatively) when taken by a woman. A strong man is “the boss” while a strong woman is “bossy;” a man is “neat” if he takes care of his appearance while a woman is “vain.”
All of our actions at work and in life, regardless of how we intend them to come off, are interpreted by those around us. This is what creates our reputation. Because what is a reputation, really, other than the beliefs or opinions that other people have about is?
As a young professional, and especially as a female young professional, this is a topic I struggle with on a daily basis. What do I want my reputation to be? Do I want people to like me? Do I shy away from conflict and play the peace maker so that everyone can work together in peace? Or do I stand up for what I believe? Do I rock the boat when confronted with confrontational people?
Why You Should Care
For those of you thinking, “I don’t need to worry about that! I just have to do my work well and I’m fine!” think again. In my recent job change, one thing I learned about in great detail is not only the importance of what you do, but how you get it done. Your reputation is a combination of the two, and don’t discount the how. I have seen a lot of brilliant people passed over for promotions or not considered for certain jobs, not because they couldn’t get the job done, but because of how others perceived they would get it done.
The Pitfalls Of Being Nice
I’ve seen time and again how being the nice girl gets you many “friends,” – and I put that in quotes because are they really your friends, or are they exploiting your nice nature? – but it doesn’t get you promoted or working on those sought after special assignments. Caroline Dow-Higgins, Director of Career and Professional Development at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, is a strong believer that being “liked” in the workplace is not enough to advance your career.
Don’t volunteer to take notes or get coffee for others if that is not expressly in your job description. I know that women tend to be nurturers and that’s great, but do it at home with your loved ones and don’t get too personal at work. If you find yourself acting like your co-worker’s mother or become the company pop psychologist because you are a really good listener, you are being too nice. Get back to work!
Along those lines, Lisa Mandell makes an interesting argument in response to reading Dr. Lois Frankel’s book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office – 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make The Sabotage Their Careers (which I intend to read at my earliest convenience). Mandell writes that the strategies we learned in kindergarten that made us nice girls, raising our hands and sitting still, won’t get us very far in the work place.
Some of the common mistakes that nice girls make are:
1) Waiting to be given what you want (because that’s how most people get themselves promoted – not).
2) Avoiding office politics
3) Sharing too much personal information
4) Decorating your office like your living room (Guilty. You should see my beautiful pictures and bring pink tack boards…)
5) Over-apologizing (*said with a great deal of sarcasm* because when someone runs into you in the hallway, it’s clearly your fault).
Can You Try And Be Both?
For those of you asking, “why can’t I be both?” there are those out there who argue that it can be done. Kare Anderson, an author and contributor at Forbes, maintains that we can actually be liked and respected. In her article, “How To Be Respected And Liked” Anderson argues that respect comes from your strength (skill and will) and that being liked comes from your warmth (shared concerns or interests). This is an eternal balancing act, however, so make sure you’re ready for the pendulum effect. And ladies, you might not want to do it the same way you see men doing it. (Read her article for more details on that!)
But as Sharon Sandberg argues in Lean In, “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” and that, “…successful women pay a likeability penalty specifically in arenas considered to be male domains.” So this may be a great strategy for the gentlemen out there! But maybe not quite the best strategy for the ladies…
Why I Choose Being Respected Over Being Nice
Maybe it was all of my time studying the Italian renaissance in Florence that has swayed me, but when it comes to deciding whether to be liked or respected, I side with Machiavelli: “It is better to be feared [or respected] than loved, if you cannot be both.”
This may also stem from the fact that I am a very ambitious person. I make no secret of the fact that I want to learn to be a leader one day. That’s just how I’m wired. When I was 4 years old, one of my preschool teachers told my mother that she was concerned becuase I only seemed to have one friend at school. When my mother confronted me with this information, I wasn’t surprised or flustered. In fact, I confidently smiled at my mother and voiced what I thought was the best solution to the situation, “Don’t worry Mom! I’ll find someone new to follow me tomorrow!”
While that’s probably not the best model of leadership, I still take it as a sign that I was hardwired to lead.
But be prepared. Being respected isn’t the least bumpy road; in fact, it’s probably the bumpiest. You’re going to make waves. You’re going to challenge “how we’ve always done things.” And that’s not easy. The American revolution wasn’t a discussion over tea; it was a fierce and bloody battle for respect and independence. While I hope you’re career isn’t bloody, if you want to advance, you’re going to have to work for that respect.
If you want to be respected at work, here are a few ideas for you to think about:
1) When you make decisions, don’t worry about what everyone will think about you, but rather think about how that decision will impact the business. (Remember, just because you make a hard decision doesn’t mean people have to hate you for it. This is where the how comes in. You can still “tell someone go to hell and make them believe they’ll enjoy the trip.”)
2) The golden rule: treat others the way you yourself want to be treated. If you treat others with respect, they will likely return the courtesy (I hope!).
So, Where Do You Stand?
What do you want your reputation to look like as you build your career? What do you want to be known for? If being liked and being popular is important to you, then by all means go there! Just remember, in the infinate words of Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “Hagrid, if you’re holding out for universal popularity, I’m afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time.”