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On Being 'Nice'

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Women often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. When women are viewed as "nice," studies show that people "like" them better, but they are considered less effective in the workplace. When they're considered more effective but less nice, they experience more career roadblocks. What's a girl to do?

Part of the problem with this argument is in how it is framed. It implies that being nice (or feminine) is ineffective and being not nice (masculine) is effective. Since most of our images of leadership are masculine-infused, women are under tremendous pressure to emulate those qualities, and yet as soon as they do, they are derided as bitches. So part of the problem is that we do not associate the feminine and nice as qualities we attribute to effective leadership.

There is a problem of perception here, and the biases we bring to the word "nice," such as being compliant and eager to please. In reality, isn't there something deeper to being nice than this stereotype? Aren't we being "nice" when we listen deeply? Aren't we being nice when we are inclusive? Aren't we being nice when we are being empathic? Aren't we being nice when we are utilizing our relational intelligence? Aren't these feminine skills effective in leadership? Research on the generation of collective intelligence suggests that the answer is, Yes they are!

Social scientists, such as Christopher Chabris at MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence, and Anita Williams Woolley at Carnegie Mellon University, have recently begun to systematically examine what they call the "collective intelligence" of groups. Collective intelligence is a measure of how smart the group is, as a whole. Chabris and Woolley's paper, "Evidence for Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups", was reported in the journal Science in October 2010.

What they discovered in their research completely surprised them; it was not something they expected or were looking for. They learned that collective intelligence is not tied to either the smartest person on the team nor to the average intelligence of the members of the team.

Rather it is something that is greater than any individual contribution or the sum of contributions. It is an emergent property that results from the interactions among the people in the group. What emerges is almost magical: something greater than the sum of its parts. You can call it evolved thinking.

The current research on collective intelligence gives us two key results. The first is that the phenomenon is real, that groups can indeed perform at a higher level of creativity than any single individual. We knew this intuitively, of course. It is the second result that is the surprise, and this has to do with the one single predictor that a particular group will have high collective intelligence: namely, at least half the chairs around the table should be occupied by women. Surprised?

What do women bring to the table that catalyzes evolved thinking? According to Chabris and Woolley it is a superior social sensitivity in reading non-verbal cues and other people's emotions, and a fairness in turn taking. In other words, it is relational intelligence.

Couldn't assuring everyone has a turn be perceived as being nice? Couldn't being sensitive to the emotional undercurrents be perceived as being nice? But is this ineffective? No, in fact, these are the very skills that facilitate the emergence of collective intelligence.

Being "nice" could include a bevy of feminine skills that have been marginalized and demeaned by being called "nice." However, they are actually the opposite from ineffective and soft; they are very powerful and effective and difficult skills to learn. I think of dancers. If a dancer is really talented, she really makes it look easy when in fact it requires a tremendous amount of skill. I think we often take for granted the amount of skill it requires to make things "nice."

So what's a girl to do? Step out of the dichotomy: nice can also be a very effective skill. It's not an either/or argument. Transform that perceived weakness and embrace it as a strength that can give you an edge as a leader. Being nice when it includes those feminine skills such as relational intelligence, inclusion, empathy, collaboration, deep listening, and consensus building is a very effective way to achieve your goals in our increasingly interdependent world. Eventually even the "not nice" bosses will take notice when you deliver and wonder how such a nice person got to accomplish what she did.