Do “nice” folks really finish last? Not if they avoid these four traps!

There is an old saying that people have used time and time again about nice guys finishing last – in work, sports, and life. Research from the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business studied 1,500 people over 20 years, and they found that being too nice won’t boost you up the corporate ladder. I doubt many of us find this shocking.

Well, is the opposite true – do leaders get rewarded for showing up as jerks? Nope, that doesn’t work either. The same research similarly found that “Going to the other extreme and being abrasive, or a toxic co-worker or leader, is equally damaging to your career and others in the organization. The evidence is overwhelming that being abrasive, disrespectful, abusive, and mean will also derail a career.” Glad we have some evidence to refute being abusive will not take you far in the workplace. 

Below I’ll share four areas that are traps for nice guys/gals, as well as practical advice that people can use to be their authentic selves but also advance up the career ladder. The key is to be aware of behaviors and actions, so your actions and statements are purposeful and not based on unhelpful habits. You must be willing to step out of your comfort zone, which is challenging and scary, but once you do, growth is on the other side. 

Get Comfortable with Tough Conversations 

Whether your company does quarterly, bi-annual or annual reviews, they can be a  source of stress for the manager and employee if things are not going well. Some companies have legendary and painful review processes and months-long efforts that zap people with their valuable energy. Instead, it would be more beneficial to put that time toward practical work. Then there are 9-Box models where people’s bonuses are often based on the boxes they occupy. No matter what the mechanism is for feedback, a manager must be able to address employees in a timely and direct way. Ideally, you want to have these conversations in person. You want to give concrete examples of where the employee has not met their mutually agreed upon goals. You want this to be a two-way dialog and hear the employee’s perspective.  Preparing and developing a growth mindset is critical for these discussions. That does not mean you need to agree with everything your boss says. Make sure to use your voice and represent your work and achievements. 

Using the Words “I’m Sorry” too Often

Women often fall into the trap of saying sorry at work – especially during meetings. We apologize much more often than men. Research cites this is because women’s threshold for what is apology worthy is much lower than men’s. Many of us see this every day at work. Two people start taking in a meeting, and if one is a woman and another a man, most often, that woman will stop and apologize. There was no need for these. Neither of them was in the wrong. Women apologizing for no good reason can be weak and stunt career growth. There is a time when both men and women should apologize, but people must be very conscious of these situations. Instead of an, I’m sorry, you can use other phrases. Let me build upon that. Please go ahead, and I’ll jump in after you. Be mindful of words that you might think don’t carry much weight at work but could put in a box that you don’t want to be in 

It’s Okay to Say No

Young children are the best models for authentic behavior. They live moment to moment and have no problem defining their wants and needs. Yes, I want this toy, not I don’t want to eat peas. What happens when we get older, and directness often stops at work? Are we scared to say no? Will we get a reputation as being difficult? To get that promotion, do we need to say yes to all assignments that come our way? The answer is no. 

There are different approaches to saying no. First, listen to the request. You generally have time to think about it and do not need to respond with a yes or no immediately. But when you have taken time to evaluate and decide if you have the capacity and interest, be very straightforward with your response. Give a yes or no, not a wishy-washy in-between. If you are used to saying yes to everything, this is an excellent opportunity to practice saying no and stick to it. How you say, no could also impact how your boss or others come to you with future projects. But honest and direct, but not harsh. 

Doing Your Employees Jobs

One of the biggest traps new managers, who often have the desire to get an early win and be liked by their employees, is taking on the part of their employees’ jobs. Doing your employees’ jobs can seem like a win-win because it is completed faster and correctly the first go around. It helps out the employee who likely has a lot on their plate, and you often can do that job with your eyes closed. The opposite is true since the employee cannot develop their skills by doing this project, and you focus your precious time on their work instead of your own. Your role as a leader is to align the end goals and provide the resources for your employees to succeed.

Additionally, you do regular check-ins and have a frank dialog about what is working and what is not. But if someone is unsuccessful in their role, you need to have honest discussions about why they fall short (see Get Comfortable with Tough Conversations). Doing diving saves and jumping in to complete others’ tasks is terrible for you, the employee, your team, and the organization. If you are interested in learning more about why we form habits and how to change them, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business is an excellent book.

I look forward to hearing your tips for what you’ve used at work to stay true to who you are but shed the nice guy, or gal, label.

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