06/14/2011 11:16 am ET | Updated Aug 14, 2011

Nice People Can Finish First

The idea of being a nice person has been getting a negative rap. Pop celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Whitney Port complain that being nice hurts them. Popular books, like Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office, advise suppressing your desire to be nice in order to succeed. And of course Leo Durocher's quote, "Nice guys finish last," gets repeated over and over as a lament about why people need to get tougher, more assertive, and less giving if they want to get their needs met and advance more in the workplace and in life.

The World English Dictionary defines "nice" as "pleasant or commendable" and "kind or friendly." It says nothing about being acquiescent at your own expense or not being able to say "no" to requests. Yet "nice" has become synonymous with being a people pleaser or DoorMat, which actually isn't nice if you neglect yourself. Empowered nice people understand that nice doesn't mean giving yourself away to anyone who asks or being uber-agreeable with everyone.

People pleasers give themselves away and call it nice. But it's not nice if you feel used, taken for granted, and don't get your needs met, usually so everyone will like you. The people pleasing kind of nice leaves you believing that being nice gets you nowhere, since everyone knows they can take advantage of your generosity and do nothing in return.

Nice people who finish first are courteous, respectful, friendly, and soft-spoken when possible. They help others when they can because they care, not to buy acceptance. But they also have solid boundaries about when to say "no" and what they can comfortably give. While they speak softly, they carry a big stick -- an attitude that says they mean business. That attitude starts with taking yourself seriously.

Instead of trying to toughen up on the outside, write down reasons why you deserve the respect and opportunities that you crave. Ask loved ones for suggestions. Convince yourself that you're worthy of respect! Treat yourself with more kindness, which helps build self-love. The more you value yourself, the less you'll allow people to treat you poorly and the stronger the boundaries you'll feel comfortable setting. Then you can be kind to others in healthier ways.

You don't have to be outspoken or loud to show you're serious. Think Miranda Priestly, Meryl Streep's character in The Devil Wears Prada. She never raised her voice but her tone and demeanor said she meant business and everyone took her seriously! Nice people who finish first have a similar tone and demeanor but add a smile and good intentions. People will like and respect that kind of nice person.

If you've been a people pleasing kind of nice and finally have that aha moment of deciding to take control of your life, running in the opposite direction isn't the most satisfying one. Being nice can get you much further than taking a harder stance for handling situations. People prefer to work with nice individuals. Customer service people go the distance for people who are considerate about not taking frustrations out on them. Most people like having kind friends. A sincere smile can attract people to you in positive ways. Nice people often build stronger relationships than those who are more demanding and less accommodating, which can be critical for getting ahead.

In her book, The Power of Nice, Linda Kaplan Thaler cites one example after getting ahead in business by becoming known as a nice person. After being a people pleaser for years, I learned that being a healthy version of nice is a huge asset -- if your attitude lets people know what you expect. A nice person can say "no," speak up, get promoted, earn lots of respect and be just as effective as those who scorn being nice. But she will also have a better chance of being liked, which in the end will get her a lot more nice benefits.