(Quick note: this entire conversation refers to women as well as men. Sad truth is, however, that when we’re talking about executives, most of them are still men.)
I coach a lot of “nice guys” and some who wonder why people don’t realize how nice they are “on the inside.” And here’s the sad part: often the ones who others perceive as “nice” are working for the ones who are… er, in their own words… “misunderstood” by others. That is to say, other people often think these leaders are domineering jerks. But that interpersonal roughness is the edge of a skill set that gets them promoted over and over. And it gets them promoted over the “nice guy” who might also be considered for the job.
Why is that? And how can people win when they’re both ambitious and committed to being kind, courteous, and connected with other people? Here’s the bottom line: Being “nice” only holds you back when it stops you from addressing key issues with bottom-line importance. Consultant Eric Allenbaugh taught me, years ago, a valuable distinction: You can be soft on issues or hard on issues. And you can be soft on people or hard on people. True jerks are hard on people, no matter where they stand on issues. The most promotable people are always those who’re hard on issues. Unfortunately in most corporate cultures, they can be hard on people and still rise. It’s my mission, however, to help people become truly extraordinary leaders: hard on issues, while being soft on people. That is to say: keep the “nice” approach to people, but without confusing “nice” with indirect, indecisive, or following consensus.
My “misunderstood,” hard-on-people, hard-on-issues clients are learning to build in warmth, connection, and empathy so they are just as tough on issues, but softer on people.
And my “nice guy” clients are learning that they finish first when they lean into the goodwill they’ve generated by being soft with people. They risk a little of that social capital they’ve earned in spades, by being direct and decisive, and teaching other people how to deliver what they want. What they find is that the risk pays off: they begin to earn the same respect accorded their tough-guy bosses, but with all the fun and connection of a nice-guy approach. No one gets mad or says, “wait! I thought you were nice!” They thank them for the guidance and clarity.