Women in the workplace are continually overextending themselves, bending over backwards unnecessarily just because it’s the “nice” thing to do. Yet, it’s difficult to achieve one’s own personal goals in business while constantly making everyone else happy.Women are often pushed aside and disrespected in the workplace, yet women seldom push back because, as author and president of Corporate Coaching International, Lois Frankel, would argue, they were raised to be “nice girls.” Nice girls make everyone else in the company happy by constantly going beyond the call of duty, usually at the expense of their own work or happiness. Conversely, overly aggressive women tend to be disliked and stigmatised. So how can women break free from this lose-lose scenario and become successful “winning” businesswomen?
Frankel’s latest book, Nice Girls Just Don’t Get It, co-authored by Carol Frohlinger, offers tips and strategies to help women get everything they want, not just in business, but also in life. These empowering strategies teach women how to be assertive without being contentious, and how to earn the respect and dignity every working woman deserves. In an interview with the author, a “recovering nice girl” herself, Frankel, Ph.D., explains how women are victims of their own socialisation as little girls, and what they can do to break free and take back control of their own lives.
What did you learn since writing the first book, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, that inspired you to write this book?
What we learned is that the situation for women in general isn’t getting any better. In fact, we surveyed women around the world and found out that across generations, women continue to get treated badly, to be not given promotions that they’re due, to be harassed, and any number of other things. So we thought in the intervening years since I wrote Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, things would’ve gotten better, but in fact they didn’t.
I think there’s a number of other factors that play into that. If you look at the numbers of female CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, the numbers have actually gone down in the past two years. So we’re not moving in the right direction.
A lot of times, women who talk to me when I do keynotes ask me questions more around how they can take control of their lives outside of work so they can focus more on work. So the tips in this book really focus primarily on your relationships—with your mother-in-law, with your husband, with your children, with your friends. How can you take charge of these so that you’re not spending an unnecessary amount of energy on managing people’s expectations of you? We suggest you do want to manage expectations, but in many cases, women don’t know how to do that, so they succumb to unnecessary requests, demands, expectations—implicit or explicit. When Carol [Frohlinger] and I wrote the book, our desire was really to help women see the ways in which they give away a lot of their power, and how they can take it back.
When we talk about taking back the power that you have, power is very different for a man than for a woman. For a man, power is often power over someone, over something. Power for a woman is having control of her own life. We’re big advocates of “nice is necessary” for success in any endeavour, whether it’s success with managing your relationship with your mother-in-law, or success with managing your clients, your boss, or your co-workers. It’s necessary. You have to be nice, but you can’t be the nice little girl you were taught to be in childhood and expect to achieve your adult goals. It doesn’t work. That’s what we refer to as “nice girl syndrome.”
So how does one transition from being a “nice girl” to a “winning woman?”
It starts with an evaluation of your past and envisioning your future. There’s the old saying, “if you don’t understand the past, you’re doomed to repeat it.” I had lunch recently with a young woman who quit her job that she absolutely hated, and she found what she thought was the perfect job. But what she found out was it was the same situation. Women who are repeating the same mistakes are not really taking a critical look at what hasn’t worked in the past, and ask, “What am I willing to let go of?” I think women need to do that: They have to take a very critical look at how do they contribute to where they currently are. Or how did they allow others to define who they should be. If you want to transition to a winning woman, that’s the first thing you have to do. And then once you understand that, you need to give yourself permission then to engage in new behaviours, even though other people are going to push back on you.
When you are a nice girl, everyone loves you because you take care of everyone else. So when you start to change your behaviour, other people don’t get as much of what they want. They’re invested in having you stay exactly how you are. Another strategy we have is “how do you prepare for push-back?” This is not about me not wanting to meet your needs; it’s about meeting your needs and having mine met at the same time.
Another tactic is that you need to build relationships that work for you. Women are very good at building relationships; they’re not good at leveraging them. They feel as if I shouldn’t ask anybody for anything. There’s a female author that told me “I can’t get my book published, I’m having such a hard time.” Well, I happened to know that her father was a very famous author, but she used a different last name than him. So I asked, “Have you gone to your father’s publishers and let them know who you are?” She said, “Well, I don’t want to capitalise on his reputation.” I said, “Quit being a girl.” What you need to do is get your foot in the door, and then you’ll have to prove yourself. But why not capitalise on any relationship that could be of help to you, but not take advantage of it?
In what other ways can women break out of the “nice girl” pattern?
Craft meaningful messages. Women use far too many words when fewer would do. As I’m always telling women, short sounds confident. Women tend to use more words than men because they either feel as if they have to compensate for something or prove themselves. Also, when they’re talking, particularly to men, and they don’t get a lot of the gesturing and the “uh huhs,” they keep talking thinking they’re going to get it when they need to learn to say it, and then become comfortable with the quiet. Women use more words than men because they think it’s only fair to share everything they know. People don’t need to know all that.
Don’t just succumb to everything that’s asked of you; manage people’s expectations. I’m a big believer in good customer service and client service, and I tell everyone yes to almost everything. And there’s always a second part of it, which is “Yes, I’d be happy to do this. Now, with the amount of time you’ve given me, here’s realistically what I can give you. Or with this amount of money, here’s realistically what I can provide. Now, if you want to give me more time or more money, I can get closer to what you want.”
Use and share your connections. When we talk about sharing connections, you want to be a relationship broker. Women are good at building them, so why not share them more? You want to be the go-to person. I want e-mails and requests coming to me because every once in a while, I’m going to answer the question.
And live your values. Many times for women, when I ask them “what are your values?” I get a deer in the headlights look. They’ve been living other people’s values for so long—whether it’s their employers, their parents, their husbands, their spouse, their partner—that they don’t even know what their values are anymore. To be a winning woman, it’s not just to get things; it’s to live a rich life in all ways. Living a rich life means “I live my values.”
When a woman is starting a new career or a new job, does a woman have to immediately default to the “nice girl,” or is it possible for her to be a lower-status winning woman, but a winning woman nonetheless?
She needs to be a winning woman; now, that doesn’t mean she’s not nice. Your reputation is established at a new job probably within the first week or two. People like you or they don’t like you. They see that you add value, or that you don’t. It really is important that you start a new job by building relationships. In my career, that’s the one thing that’s served me well, are the relationships I’ve built along the way.
Building those relationships when you start your career or job are really essential. That’s not mutually exclusive of being a winning woman, because as you build the relationships, you’re finding out what people need from you, and you’re letting them know how you can fill those needs.
Do you believe that women in business should be managing their expectations any differently than men?
What happens with women in business is a little like Mother Teresa: Miracle workers get canonized; they don’t get recognised. When I’m in a mixed group doing a keynote, and I’ll look at woman and say, “If your boss gives you the impossible to do, to make a miracle, what do you do?” She says, “I do it.” Then I look at a man and ask what he does. He’ll say one of three things: “I negotiate; I delegate it to a woman; or I laugh.” That’s what guys say.
When it comes to managing expectations, guys are actually much better at it. When you give a guy an impossible job to do, he may get it done, but he usually doesn’t do it alone, or he goes back and he negotiates for what he needs to do the job right. Women don’t do that.
Are women in the workplace more disrespected by women or by men?
I think it’s equal opportunity disrespect. I know you hear this complaint a lot from a lot of women—that it’s much tougher working with women, that they’re more critical of you. That has not been my experience throughout my career, first of all. I’ve had men be equally critical and difficult as women. And number two, I think women expect more from women than they expect from men. When a woman treats her badly, it somehow creates a cognitive dissonance for her. It’s like, “Wait a minute, this doesn’t compute. She’s another woman. She should be treating me better than this.” But when a guy does it, that’s not what she thinks to herself; she just thinks he’s being tough. It has to do with the expectations.
Would you recommend that women have female mentors or male mentors?
They need to have both. They need women who have been successful to show them how to successfully manoeuvre the workplace playing field.
The playing field is different for men and women: The boundaries for women, in many areas, are much narrower, and as you know, if the boundaries are narrower, it’s easier to go out of bounds. An example would be assertiveness. It’s almost impossible for a guy to be too assertive, yet when a woman is equally assertive, she’s often called a bitch. Her boundaries are narrower, so she needs a successful woman to show her how to manoeuvre within the boundaries of the playing field and not go out.
On the other hand, she also needs male mentors. There was a recent article in Harvard Business Review that said, “So why aren’t women still getting promoted?” There are more and more mentors for women, but they’re not getting promoted, and the reason was because they didn’t have advocates. Men are more likely to advocate for you. They’re in positions to advocate for you—particularly senior men—so you need to have someone who’s going to be willing to speak up and say, “Hey, why don’t we consider this woman? She’s done this, she’s done it for a while, and I think she’d be great at it.” Whereas a woman is a little more hesitant to recommend another woman, for fear of being accused of just pushing the woman’s agenda. So you really need both.
Does it matter what a woman wears to work to get more respect from her co-workers and bosses?
What you need to understand is yes, you have to look your best, but you’re not going on a date, you’re not going to a club. Sex sells, but not in the long run. You really need to ask yourself, “Are my shirts too short? Is my hair too long?” Every woman loves to have this long flowing hair, yet what happens for women with long hair when they’re talking to people, they’re often touching it. You’re pushing it out of your face, you’re flipping it, things like that, and that diminishes your credibility. If you want to have long flowing hair, great; if your husband loves it, terrific—wear it up when you go to work. You want to wear a mini skirt to a club, fine; you don’t wear it to work.
You look around at the women who are succeeding in your workplace and you say “Who has the job I want to have three or five years from now, and how is she dressing?” You can’t be frumpy on the other hand, because that won’t work. I’ve had people sent to me for coaching, where their bosses asked, “Can you get her to get rid of that sweater?” This is what guys say to me; I can’t make this stuff up.
So absolutely you need to look your best, but you need to be smart about it. But if you have a hard time doing it, I’d say go to a place like Nordstrom or any big department store, and ask them to help you with putting together an appropriate workplace wardrobe. And make-up, by the way, is important too, because women wear too much or too little. You need to know exactly what looks right for you. You get a free makeover at Macy’s—go get a makeover! It’s free!
Is it possible for pregnant women to still get what they want in the workplace?
It can be very tough, but here’s where the values come in. We know that once a woman becomes pregnant, she’s marginalized to some degree. You have to say to yourself, “Where are my values?” If my values are around having a family—and that means for the next five years, I can’t travel—well so be it, because it’s consistent with my values. On the other hand, I know women that want to have children, but they also want to have a career. They don’t want to give that up. I have seen women—I’m thinking of one in particular—who drive hard. When she became pregnant, even when she was in her ninth month, no one saw her as a pregnant woman because she brought her A-game to work every day, she didn’t talk about her pregnancy, and if she was sick, we didn’t know about it.
It’s about integration these days; it’s not about work-life balance, because there’s no such thing if you want to climb the corporate ladder. There is no work-life balance for women; it’s about integrating it. What are the necessities for me, and how am I going to work this?
Interestingly enough, I had a conversation with an editor in New York the other day, and I know that she has three kids, and I know her company has flex-time. I said, “Do you work flex time so you can be with your kids more?” She said, “No. If you ask for or take flex time, you’re marginalized. Instead what I do is when I need extra time off, I just quietly take it.” I think that’s good advice because anything that sets you apart from your male counterpart—in terms of gender—is going to work to your disadvantage. Unfortunately, that’s still where we are. It’s unfortunate but it’s true. I’m not saying you can’t have a family if you want a career; you just have to decide what’s most important to you, what your values are, and how you’ll manage expectations around them.
Is this book exclusively for women, or are there messages in the book for men, too?
I certainly think that there are messages for men. I know when my brother reads my books, he always says, “You know Lois, I get a lot out of it, too. I could do some of these things.” I think there are some—not all—messages that would apply to men.
There’s a cultural aspect to it, as well, because the people who benefit most from these kinds of messages are typically Asian and Hispanic men. The reason I say that is because stereotypically, in those cultures, they are raised with more feminine characteristics and qualities. Many times, they need these same things. As a matter of fact, I was brought into GE to work with the Asian Pacific American Forum, which was men and women. They said, “The Asian men need to hear your message. Sometimes, they’re too quiet, they don’t speak up, they respect authority too much, they never disagree with the boss so they’re never seen as adding value. So there’s a cultural aspect to it, as well.
If there’s just one message that you hope readers take away from your book, what would it be?
It would be, to get the things that you want in life, you need to take risks. You need to get outside your comfort zone and be willing to deal with other people’s discomfort, because if you spend your life making other people comfortable, you may feel good, but you’re not going to get what you really want.
This post originally appeared at Inc. Read more The Best Industries to Start and Grow a Business in 2011 Jason Fried: Why I Run a Flat Company
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