As I read Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," I nodded so hard that I worried my neck would sprain. I noticed after a while that the highlight function on my Kindle was turning every page fully yellow.
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The takeaway? Succeeding in business—whether that business is a blog, the PTA, or being COO of Facebook—is hard, and nobody can do everything right. But you can try, and you can remain a human being while doing it.
My own mom was a classic '70s feminist who dressed me in brown corduroy, cropped my hair short ("because you should be reading, not brushing your hair 100 times each night"), and led by example, raising her voice Brooklyn-style whenever she felt she was being slighted. Even under her tutelage, I internalized the idea that ambition and aggression were a turn-off. And that's a trap so many of us fall into: We want to be nice all of the time, whether at home or at work.
It's a constantly evolving position, a constantly moving target: How can we women—and men, too—be true to ourselves while succeeding in the workplace? In her book, Sandberg gives us nine instances when being nice isn't just unneeded—it's actively holding us back.
The Nice Behavior: Sit Out of the Way
What to Do Instead: Take Your Place at the Table
Sandberg tells several tales of women entering a meeting and, instead of sitting at the main, central table, fading back to sit in the outer ring of chairs so as not to appear presumptuous or to inconvenience any other attendees.
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"Because of their seating choices, they seemed more like spectators than participants," Sandberg writes. After the meeting, she pulled the women aside and told them they should have taken their rightful seats at the table.
The Nice Behavior: Be Realistic About Your Shortcomings
What to Do Instead: Fake It 'Til You Make It
"Be more confident" isn't realistic advice—confidence isn't something everyone can summon with a snap of their fingers. But faking it? That's something we can all manage.
Sandberg calls it "fake it 'til you feel it," but the sentiment is the same: Women, more than men, let a lack of self-confidence discourage them from trying for their goals (for instance, they're much more likely to say that their experience doesn't qualify them for a new position, or their particular skills make them ill-suited for a project). Assume you will figure out the bits you don't know, she says, and fake the confidence you need to take initiative.
The Nice Behavior: Follow Instructions to the Letter
What to Do Instead: Bend the Rules to Suit Your Aims
After Sandberg gave a speech on gender issues in the workplace, a young woman approached her to tell her what she'd learned from Sandberg's speech. "I should have kept my hand up," she said.
What did she mean? After wrapping up the talk, Sandberg said to the audience: "Only two more questions." At that point, all of the women put their hands down, while all the men started waving theirs more aggressively. Sandberg wound up taking two more questions. "Even though I had been giving a speech on gender issues," Sandberg says, "I had been blind to one myself."
The Nice Behavior: Sacrifice Your Time for Your Client
What to Do instead: "Bill Like a Boy"
When a male friend of Sandberg's realized that his wife and her female colleagues tended to underestimate their billable hours to keep from over-charging, he told her to "bill like a boy." As he put it, men "considered any time they spent thinking about an issue—even time in the shower—as billable hours."
The Nice Behavior: Wave Off Praise
What to Do instead: Accept Compliments Gracefully
Sandberg tells of a mortifying moment when she was placed on a well-known publication's "most powerful people" list along with formidable women such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—and ahead of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Feeling that she wasn't more powerful than the First Lady, Sandberg spent days removing the list from her friends' Facebook walls, telling anyone who would listen how silly the list was and waving off congratulations from coworkers. Then her executive assistant pulled her aside and told her to cut it out: Her insistence on talking herself down was making her seem insecure and ungracious.
The Nice Behavior: Accept Your First Salary Offer
What to Do instead: Explain Why You Deserve More
Sandberg points out that there is not only a gender gap in wages—there's also a significant gap in how men and women are perceived when they try to rectify it. For instance, research shows that women who explain their qualifications and previous achievements in a job interview are less likely to be hired. (And how are you supposed to negotiate without describing your worth?)
She acknowledges the existing gender bias in a realistic way and presents solutions: A woman needs to justify her requests and she can't seem self-serving. To do this, she can ensure her manager's empathy by saying upfront that she's negotiating harder because she knows that women statistically don't; she can use "we" rather than "I" when describing her accomplishments at her last company to share the credit; she can cite a higher authority, such as a salary database or a previous manager, rather than just asking for a random additional number.
The Nice Behavior: Ignore Coworker Transgressions and Missteps
What to Do instead: Present Problems Respectfully
We often worry about piping up when we think someone is wrong. We could offend someone, we could fly off the handle and become angry or we could just be plain wrong and look dumb.
Sandberg counsels anyone to train in effective communication (she had her team at Google go through a program with Fred Kofman, a communication expert), and to approach any conversation knowing that there are two truths: yours and your coworker's—the real truth is usually somewhere in the middle.
By explaining your concerns using "I" statements and avoiding accusations ("I feel frustrated that you haven't answered my last four emails, which leads me to believe that my suggestions are not important to you. Is that so?"), you can get your message across clearly and effectively.
The Nice Behavior: Wait for Feedback
What to Do instead: Ask for Feedback
We get feedback on our work all the time, in the form of a "Great job!" or "What happened?" It helps us understand how to act and perform going forward. But sometimes, you have to ask. It not only helps you develop better strategies and behaviors for the future, but helps you build open, respectful relationships as well.
Asking for feedback sends a vital message that you take direction, are willing to work, and don't see yourself as a finished product. Ask for things that are hard to hear, and "remember that feedback, like truth, is not absolute," says Sandberg.
The Nice Behavior: Wear a Pleasant Smile at All Times
What to Do instead: Be Genuine
At business lunches, and golf games, and company parties, you can be sure that people aren't talking solely about business. Being genuine and connecting with your coworkers on a personal level (even if it's just "How was your weekend?") makes for a more productive workplace.
Sandberg says that even crying occasionally isn't the disaster it's made out to be—people do get upset at work, and expressing your emotions can help you connect with your coworkers. By extension, you're more motivated to work well with people you care about, and you care about those you're connected to. As Sandberg says "An all-business approach is not always good business."
That's what makes "Lean In" feel like more than a book. It's like a comforting lounge where I can warm myself in the presence of other women who are just trying to get by. I can't wait to stop being nice ... and start being better.
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