Niceties, Shmiceties: How E-mail Etiquette Could Be Holding You Back|
One of the most valuable things my father ever told me was that it pays to be nice. That’s how he established connections and networked, maintained a social life, and earned fat tips as a New York City cab driver in the late sixties and early seventies. If I always kept my friendly disposition, he said, I’d excel professionally and personally.
But the word “nice” may be in need of a makeover. In August of this year, Dr. Timothy Judge of Notre Dame published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finding that women who exhibit more traits corresponding with agreeability earn less money than women who exhibit less of those traits. Judge found that agreeable females may be walked all over as a result of their good nature.
Others have come to a similar conclusion: last week, Daily Beast columnist Amy Reiter penned a contentious column titled, “Email Etiquette: Why Being a Jerk at Work Pays.”
In her article, Reiter reveals that co-workers and business contacts began treating her with more respect after she stopped using terms like “sorry” and “thank you” regularly in emails. Reiter, who historically ended emails with a “thanks!” and apologized in messages for any inconveniences, made a decision to “shed just a bit of [her] workaday warmth” and carefully inspect each note in detail before sending anything out to ensure there were no slip-ups or signs of regret or gratitude.
“I learned to bargain firmly and unapologetically and was paid fairly-and it seemed to me that, when people paid more for my work, they tended to value it (and me) more highly, further increasing my own sense of worth,” Reiter writes.
Reiter also discovered, of course, that a balance must be struck between just using less agreeable language and becoming a prickly nuisance to work with. She admitted the exercise had limits, and that she “pushed too hard and lost assignments.” This caused Reiter to ask herself whether the shift in correspondence had tainted her reputation, and whether she’d lost perspective on how she was being seen by others.
Cutting out the cutesy details and sob stories
While having good intentions and working hard to show loyalty at work is still crucial to success, the Notre Dame study speaks much more to the impotence of exerting effort towards constantly assuaging the emotions of coworkers. The time for using words to show loyalty and support for your company is during interview rounds and press interaction, and not in the middle of a project.
Reiter changed her email style upon realizing that her high-powered boss prospered and earned the respect of others by being a “jerk” and never appearing to “give a rip about what was going on in the lives of anyone around him.” Reiter wanted to stop trying to achieve the impossible “dream colleague” status, so when she stopped trying to be a textbook perfect co-worker it helped her to clarify her work vision rather than get caught up explaining her feelings. At meetings, Reiter found herself “smiling less and bargaining harder,” showing loyalty to results over niceties.
Reiter adds that the confidence she acquired from this subtle change enabled her to find it in herself to start a freelance business, which has benefited her financially and professionally. Injecting kindness into emails didn’t help Reiter move up, but being direct and skipping out on all the cutesy details and sob stories did.
A fundamental concept in play here is that words lose their meaning when they’re used overly frequently or in the wrong situation. I’ve had a staff member asked me to stop thanking him every time he gave me an assignment. He questioned my sincerity and became annoyed with the unneeded commentary, which said nothing about my productivity or capabilities, so I vowed to cut to the chase with employees.
Dr. Ilana Simons, a practicing therapist, says action speaks louder than words, particularly with regards to apologizing. “Making a vow to stay away from certain words can stimulate personal change,” Dr. Simons wrote. “Changing behavior is a bigger investment, because it takes real energy.”
The importance of an attitude of efficiency
Much research has been done on the concept of attitudes at the workplace. The “Nice Guys Finish Last” theory can be applied to the office in addition to dating, according to the same Notre Dame study, which claims disagreeable men earn about 18% more than their agreeable counterparts.
Last year, research published in Psychological Science divided study participants into teams and the less friendly groups fared better under “angry leaders” while friendlier teams experienced higher workloads under the same leadership. Researchers hypothesized that followers who don’t mind conflict would not have any problems with an angry leader whereas friendly followers are likely to expect to see the same kind of friendly attitude from their managers. Curt and uncooperative behavior doesn’t fly in the workforce and can often grounds for termination of employment– especially in client-facing roles.
Why no-nonsense women “get stuff done”
It can be harder for women to know how whether to be a sweet or no-nonsense employee. Women who have tough personas can thrive professionally, but women who are pleasant can also be efficient. Last month, Vice President Dick Cheney stunned many when he applauded Democratic Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and dubbed her “one of the more competent members of the current administration”. The former first lady also took second place on Forbes 2011 list of the “World’s Most Powerful Women“. There’s no doubt the former presidential hopeful knows what she’s doing, but she has also been berated for coming across as chilly and unapproachable.
As comedienne Tina Fey pointed out before the 2008 election, “[Clinton] is a bitch. So am I. Bitches get stuff done. That’s why Catholic Schools use nuns as teachers and not priests. At the end of the year you hated those bitches, but you knew the capital of Vermont.” Tina, though, is widely known for her tireless work ethic and her down-to-earth mindset. The key here is that they’re both fiercely loyal and hardworking. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to lead a major party in Congress, ranked 52nd on the same Forbes list. Pelosi continues to battle the stereotype of being a California ice princess, even though she is simultaneously a beacon of hope for aspiring female politicos.
Pelosi and Clinton’s perceived attitudes and personalities might make them women you have difficulty imagining gossiping with. But their commitment and the no-nonsense attitudes that go along with it help them progress. A Stanford study published earlier this year found that women who demonstrate aggressiveness, assertiveness, and confidence — but know when to tone down these traits — snag more promotions than other women and even men. As Levo (League) writer Leslie Zaikis determined earlier this month, assertiveness is the trick to flourishing at work.
Why nice women also triumph
Softer female leaders see results, too. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who has been declared by some as the most influential woman in the world, is known for her warm demeanor, interest in helping others, and philanthropic efforts. “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, once a struggling single parent who could barely feed herself and her baby girl, is considered by many as humble and “down-to-earth” in spite of her newfound fame and astounding wealth. Both women put their heart and soul into their empires, and both have seem positive results. These leading ladies, both classic Cinderella stories, prove it’s possible to be both sweet and wildly successful.
How changing your perspective in communication can boost your work reputation and make your life easier
Perhaps a happy medium between kind and strong-willed is what it takes to do well as a female leader or worker. Towards the end of Reiter’s piece, she admits to sometimes thanking and apologizing to colleagues now.
“I’ve sought to find a middle ground,” Reiter writes. “I will now allow the occasional ‘thank you’ to pass, and I will apologize if I feel it is justified, though I still try not to do either reflexively.”
Here at the Levo (League), we appreciate common courtesy and respectful behavior, but also believe that reliability, dedication, and loyalty to your cause are more important workplace assets than agreeability. While it may seem cold to put the efficiency of your organization ahead of your own desire to apologize for something you think you did wrong, take a second look at that thing and ask yourself whether it’s really stunted the progress of your projects or not before foisting those emotions onto someone else. Maximizing the efficiency of your interactions (while keeping them pleasant) also maximizes your ability to remain unbiased about your contribution to the company and to your own skillset.
Though we’re all for saying “please”, “thank you”, and apologizing when necessary, we prefer hard work to empty pleasantries. With that said, I plan to maintain the positive spirit and attitude that my father instilled in me many years ago, but recognize that most businesses benefit more from results over default courtesy.
So L(L)ers, give us your two cents: Does it pay off to be rude at work?