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NextGen Magazine


Experts Offer Tips on How to Be Both Nice and Assertive at Work

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Jul 31, 2023

Most people want to be nice at work, but how nice is too nice?

Not so nice that their people-pleasing impedes their careers, The Wall Street Journal found.

“I want to be a nice person,” Sarah Kleinberg, the director of operations at a health care consulting firm, told the Journal, but that niceness does not move a project forward or prompt a team member to improve. “You have to have the level of confidence to be beyond people-pleasing,” she said.

Speaking coach Samara Bay called a high-pitched voice with an upward inflection at the end of the sentence a “customer-service voice.” She said that using that tone conveys “I’m not powerful, don’t worry.” Furthermore, wavering voices can confuse others, she said. Do it enough and people might question whether you are leadership material.

“It’s the weirdest feeling to say something and mean it all the way to the end,” she said. “It feels brave.”

Negotiations coach Bob Bordone advised not undercutting oneself with hedging language, such as, “Would you be willing to consider…?” Instead, he advocated starting with a statement such as, “I wanted to talk to you about … .” If told no, he suggested trying, “How can we tackle this, even though we see it differently?” That sounds strong and assertive, but not nasty, he said. 

To be tough but not jerky, Harry Kraemer, a professor of leadership at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, suggested setting clear expectations, the Journal reported.

As a new manager at Baxter International, the health care company where he rose to be CEO, Kraemer would try to be everyone’s friend and not point out missed deadlines. The second time it happened, he became a yeller, which made him look out of control. He changed course so that, when his team missed sales targets, he gathered them for a two-hour debrief with no smiling and an intense voice.

“If I focus on being liked, the chance of being respected is very low,” he said.

Dinah Davis, a realtor in Highlands, N.C., put it another way.

“Do you want your pilot to be nice? Or do you want your pilot to get the plane on the ground?”