The only time I’ve ever cried at work was a when a former boss told me I needed to be more vulnerable. I’d gotten feedback that some of the people I managed didn’t feel they had a “good relationship” with me. This came as a shock, because likeability has never been my problem. I was born a pleaser. Raised in the Midwest where strong opinions about anything other than baseball and the weather are best kept to yourself, I steer clear of conflict whenever possible. Whether you cut in front of me at Starbucks or interrupt me in a meeting at work, I’m far more likely to silently plan your painful death than I am to confront you.
At work, in particular, I play by the unwritten rules that all women know about. I smile a lot. I make pleasant small talk before getting down to business. I remember the first names of people’s spouses and children, and always ask specific questions about how they’re doing. Most importantly, I put my head down and I get shit done, all while maintaining the high wattage smile and sunny attitude of a Miss America contestant.
The problem with all this is that as you move up in your career, nice doesn’t always get results. As I advanced at work and started managing teams, I found I needed to be more direct with my thoughts and feedback. My job was to set clear expectations and to hold people accountable to them. Sometimes this meant telling them they had missed the bar. This is easy for men, who get to wear their bluntness like a badge. They don’t have to plan out what they’re going to say and run it by other people to ensure it doesn’t come across as “negative”, or God forbid, mean. They can say “Ted, what the f*%k were you thinking?” and then go out for drinks together like nothing happened. Being direct boosts their credibility; they are seen as “straight shooters” or as setting “high expectations”.
Women, on the other hand, must leverage elaborate tactics when disagreeing or delivering constructive feedback to avoid getting a reputation as a bitch. I know because I’ve employed them all. When I have had to tell members of my team to do better, I gather feedback from multiple sources to ensure my message is validated by others (because my own opinion as someone’s boss isn’t enough, right?). I maintain open body language, use specific examples, and avoid making it personal.
My reward for walking this tightrope was to sit across from my boss while we brainstormed ideas for me to be more likeable. That word wasn’t used, of course, but with women that is almost always the implication.
“The problem is that you’re hard to get to know,” my boss told me. “I’d like to see you be more vulnerable, put yourself out there.”
The tears that filled my eyes as I processed this statement were ones of rage. What man has ever been told he needed to be more vulnerable at work? That he needed to “open up” and “share more of himself” in order to be an effective leader? I work in a conservative, male-dominated industry where I have established a reputation as a knowledgeable, results-driven professional. Now suddenly I’m supposed to spend more time talking about my feelings?
The truth is I am hard to get to know, and I’m fine with that. I come from a long line of even-tempered, tight-lipped Midwestern farmers. I’m pleasant enough, but I’m not going to share my inner thoughts or personal stories with you the first, second, or even third time we meet. As a woman, I am penalized for my reserved nature. Women are supposed to be overtly compassionate, nurturing, and helpful. I do possess these qualities. However, I also have opinions to express, directions to give (especially when I’m the one in charge), and a to-do list the length of my arm. Yes, I care about how you feel. At the same time, I have very little control over it. There is no perfect way to deliver a difficult message, and I’m not responsible for how you receive it.
So, I’m done with nice. The daily load of it has become too exhausting to bear. Calculating each move to ensure it’s one that doesn’t offend takes more energy than I have. And honestly, I don’t have time for it. No woman does. We have lunches to pack, butts to wipe, pets to clean up after, social calendars to coordinate for the whole family, laundry, dishes, and that’s just Tuesday. So excuse me if I cut you off in a meeting when you’re repeating something I’ve already said. Or if I cut in front of you at Chipotle when you can’t decide what you want. Or if you’re making me late for daycare pickup with an interminable story about your niece’s best friend’s wedding.
To be clear, the opposite of being nice is not being mean, it’s being free. Free to say what I think and feel, including “I don’t agree”, “You’re wrong” or “We’re not doing it that way”. I do want to be liked; I always will. I just no longer want it more I want my own mental health and the freedom for my voice to be heard.
Like this post? Subscribe here for more.