Play NiceHow many times have you stopped to reconsider what you wanted to say because you were concerned about how it would be received?

True story.  I recently wrote a blog post about embracing my inner “dumb blonde“.  The response was overwhelming. I was completely clueless about how many people I would offend in writing this post.  People wrote in wanting to be unsubscribed.  I felt this sinking feeling of not being “liked” in the pit of my stomach.  It didn’t feel good.  I wondered if I should have stayed safe and polite.  As I reflected on my own discomfort at offending so many people, I realized that as women leaders, many of us walk a fine line between being nice and being powerful. We  often hesitate to voice our convictions with confidence.  How to walk this line?

Research Supports us “Playing Nice”

There’s plenty of research that supports our vigilance about what we say. Research suggests that women get penalized more if they offend others because the expectation of our gender is to be nice, nurturing and collaborative. Research also shows that women are much more wary of how they are being perceived than men are.  We do a whole lot more self-monitoring.

The Downside of “Playing Nice”

The downside of all of this self-monitoring is that we appear hesitant.  We don’t express our point of view powerfully, especially if it is different from that of others.  Ironically, this (different) point of view is precisely what is needed for diverse teams to make better decisions.

All this self-monitoring can also backfire in terms of our career aspirations.  It undermines how others see our presence, our confidence, our strategic thinking, and our ability to contribute.  Most importantly, excessively worrying about whether we are being “liked” undermines our ability to be authentic, to have a strong voice – all key drivers of our career success and engagement at work.

Breaking Out of the Paradox

So how do we break out of this paradox?  It requires a paradigm shift.  We have to find a way to embrace both aspects of ourselves to be fully authentic – our inner “nice girl” and our inner “Iron Lady” – Margaret Thatcher.

That paradigm shift requires choosing what we say based on our values rather than our fears about how we will be viewed.  When we speak from our authentic values we can embrace both our inner “nice girl” and our “inner Iron Lady”.  When in doubt, here are five questions to ask ourselves:

  • Is my point of view well founded based on the experience, facts, and information I have?
  • Is what I am saying true to my values?
  • Is my intention in the right place (serving the business vs. being hurtful or undermining others?)
  • Will my point of view enrich the dialogue?
  • How can I say this so it will be understood and best resonate with the audience?

Let go of the attachment to being right, being popular, or any decision going in our favor.

Try it.  Sure, it can be uncomfortable.  Sure, your point of view may fall on deaf ears. But it’s precisely in those moments when we speak up that our voice becomes stronger.  As our voice becomes stronger we grow our influence.  The moments that count are when we choose to speak up with courage and authenticity The rest is secondary.

A version of this post first appeared on my Forbes.com blog.

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Henna Inam - Professional Photo - ColorThis article was written by Henna Inam, CEO of Transformational Leadership Inc.  Her company works with organizations to help women realize their potential to be authentic, transformational leaders. Her clients drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth, and engagement. Her corporate clients include Coca Cola, UPS, Novartis, J&J, and others who know female leadership talent is good for business. To accelerate your own growth connect with her here. Connect on Twitter @hennainam.