The Paradox of Playing Nice for Women Leaders

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 blog.

If this resonated for you, please comment, subscribe, and share with others.

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.



{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl October 1, 2013 at 4:03 am

Henna, I remember reading your ‘DB’ comment and wondering if it was a good phrase choice. :-)
Your 4 reflective questions are excellent – I think once we have answered those we need to spend time thinking about our audience and ask ‘what is the best way to convey this message to this particular group of people.’ Our delivery method, words, phrases, metaphors, and stories will adapt to our audience.
A favorite quote:
“The single biggest problem in communication, is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

Best regards to you and your work,


Henna Inam October 1, 2013 at 6:38 am

Thanks for joining the conversation Carl. I love the quote you share from George Bernard Shaw. I like your fifth question and will add it to the inquiry in the blog post.

Awareness of how to deliver content so that it will be received as intended is important. I worry though that by the time we’re done asking ourselves and answering these questions the opportunity to jump in in a fast moving comversation may flee us.


Ron Chapman October 1, 2013 at 5:17 am

Well done again, Henna … I know, the token guy … but I liked the honesty of the inner blond piece, and appreciate the candor of this piece. It is interesting to me that subscribers would flee a challenging idea rather than exploring it. After all, leadership inevitably requires embracing challenge rather than resisting it. Keep up the good work!


Henna Inam October 1, 2013 at 6:32 am

Hi Ron – You’re not just the “token guy”. You’re a wise “token guy”. In retrospect, there are some metaphors that may be universally offensive, others that may be personally offensive to certain individuals. It’s hard to anticipate the latter. Nonetheless, the faux pas on my part certainly was fortuitous in that it made me aware of my own need to be liked and write about it.


Cathy October 1, 2013 at 1:09 pm

I am finding something a little different and I attribute it to the second generation bias. I recently received feedback from my manager where he indicated that my content and intent were spot on and the delivery needed to be “softer”. Funny how men can communicate via a different set of standards. It’s okay for them to be confident and assertive but a woman taking that approach is reprimanded. I find now I say nothing at all out of fear of punishment on delivery.


Henna Inam October 1, 2013 at 7:22 pm

Hi Cathy – Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sure it’s tough to receive feedback that is based on our unconscious gender biases. As unfair as it may be, it is reality.

We do have a choice as leaders to either “shrink” or “expand” ourselves in the face of that reality. In that choice you have the power to respond with fear or courage. You can choose to be curious and ask your manager what a “softer” delivery would look like.

By giving up expressing your point of view, you are choosing to give up your power and influence in the organization. You are stronger than that! Best wishes to you.


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