A Shot in the Arm: There is Such a Thing as “Too Nice”

Question: I was recently reviewed at work and was told that I am too nice.  How do I strike a balance between being more aggressive and yet staying true to myself?

~ Amanda

Answer: This is a question that many people are faced with in their work-lives.  I think women often find this a particularly difficult balance to strike because there is a prevalent tendency in our culture to write off strong women as ‘bitches’.  But let’s break this down a little bit: what are you doing that is considered “too nice”?  Is your sense of responsibility way out of whack?  Or are people taking advantage of you? Is it a matter of being true to yourself or asserting yourself?

First of all, did you ask the person giving you your performance review what it is they consider “too nice”?  Different employers will have different ideas about how they think an office (or any workplace) should function.  Almost all will tell you that being courteous and kind to your fellow worker-bees is essential to maintaining office decorum, and they’re right. But something tells me that isn’t the problem here – unless you’re being so sugary sweet that everyone in the building gets a toothache from talking to you for five minutes.  In which case, are you really human?  More likely, you are too apt to say “yes” when asked to do something for someone, even when your plate is full.  If you say “yes” to everyone, all the time, you’ll get a reputation for being a workhorse and people won’t stop to think about your time management or workload.  You need to learn how to say “no” – kindly and respectfully – but firmly.

You also need to accept that things will still get done, even if you’re not the one to do it.  There is a difference between responsibility and accountability.  Responsibility is self-imposed, so you have to set limits and know that you can’t be responsible for making sure the whole office makes it to the end of the day in one piece (unless that’s in your job description – and then I feel sorry for you).  All you need to worry about is what you are accountable for.  It is your manager’s job to set the parameters of your work.  You are then accountable for those jobs.  If you are taking jobs from everyone in the office, chances are you are working outside the set-parameters of your particular job-title.  It might be worth your while to have a sit-down with your direct manager to discuss what your job actually entails and how to get your workload back down to a reasonable level.  This way you both know what is expected of you and your manager can help you set limits and priorities.  Managers tend to live in their own worlds, so he or she may not even realize how swamped you are unless you tell them.

Now, of course, there will always be last-minute, panic-jobs that come up that someone has to do.  If the VP of Marketing tells you they need a certain set of files in the next 5 minutes because the client is coming in for a meeting, you should probably just get the files for them and not worry about whose job it is.  But if you find the same people are constantly asking you to take part of their workload, you might try to take a more objective look at the situation.  Are they always pushing a deadline to the final minute?  Are they spreading out the work between several ‘helpers’ or just dumping everything on you?   Is it their work, or work that was thrust on them by someone else?  If you answered “yes”, “only on me” and “their work”, they might be taking advantage of you.  Again, a firm “no” can go a long way towards putting these people in their place.  Your other option is to speak with your manager or HR.  Your manager can speak with the person, or their manager, and figure out why they can’t handle their own workload.  It’s also worth bearing in mind that, in the current economy, gainful employment is difficult to come by and many companies are trying to do more work with less people.  Hard-working individuals will (hopefully) be recognized and rewarded for their efforts when the good-times come ‘round again, but until then, you may have to suffer with a smile.

Lastly, you asked how do you strike a balance between being “more aggressive and yet staying true to myself” and I’d like to address your word choice.  Unless you’re a doormat in the shape of a person, a little aggression shouldn’t destroy your sense of self.  On the other hand, I don’t think aggression is what you want in this situation.  Aggression is too strong.  You don’t need to yell and threaten people to make them understand you’re too busy to take on any more work.  You do, however, need to assert yourself.  This is akin to saying “no”.  You can still be nice to people in your office and, at the same time, get them to understand that you are not able or willing to do their work for them.  Obviously don’t tell people to “fuck off” when they ask you to lend a hand.  But if your work-persona is “too nice”, maybe you need to let a little more of the true you show.  While it is correct that everyone needs to act within the limits of acceptable workplace behaviour, if you feel like you can’t be true to yourself in your office, maybe you’re working in the wrong environment.

It’s not wrong to be nice to your coworkers.  In fact, you may find yourself without coworkers (or a job) if you decide to act like a jerk around the office.  It’s also not wrong to take the initiative or to put in some extra hours from time to time.  But being nice and being taken advantage of are two different things.  You need to look at your unique workplace dynamic and determine if you are going too far above and beyond for your own good.  You need to have a clear sense of what your job is and how best to accomplish the tasks pertaining to that job.  Once you know that, you will be better able to decide if you are able to take on more work.  People around the office will still see you as capable and responsible, but they won’t make the mistake of calling you “too nice”.

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A Shot in the Arm is your dose of advice, counsel and sound reasoning. Whether it be a serious dilemma or quirky happenstance, Cait’s here to post solutions to your prickly problems!

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  • DarkStar

    Fortunately I don’t have this problem. Thanks for the refreshing article.