Why It Doesn’t Always Pay to Be Nice at Work

Why It Doesn’t Always Pay to Be Nice at Work

There’s a popular, inspirational saying, “Wake up. Kick ass. Be kind. Repeat.” But, when it comes to your career, can you really be nice at work and still get ahead?

Recent research shows that women are expected to be nice at work by doing favors for colleagues–and they’re paying a price for it.

“This all started five, six, seven years ago, when a group of professional women got together and said, ‘Our lives are out of control, because we say ‘yes’ to everything,'” says Laurie R. Weingart, senior associate dean of education at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

Their anecdotal truths were backed up by data, which showed that women–more than men–are asked to volunteer, volunteer, and accept requests to volunteer for tasks on the job.

“There are a couple of reasons why women are afraid to say ‘no,'” Weingart explains:

  1. “Saying no to a request from someone else sends a message about the relationship between the two people. There is a concern about harming the relationship, and women tend to be more concerned about that than men. We are raised to be more relationship focused.”
  2. Another explanation is a fear of never being asked again. “Women tend not to have the same level of self-confidence as men do. If we say ‘no’ now, we have this expectation that someone is going to think less of us, and that’s not the case.”
  3. Then there is a third piece, which is that people expect women to say ‘yes’ more. “If you expect me to say yes, then you are more likely [going] to ask me. If you expect me to say ‘yes,’ and I say ‘no,’ then it’s going to negatively reflect on me, more so than if you didn’t expect me to say ‘yes.'”

Men don’t face the same problem, because people have different expectations of them. When was the last time you heard someone tell a man to be nice at work?

“If you don’t expect men to say ‘yes’ and they do, then it’s seen as they are doing this wonderful thing. When women say ‘yes’ to something, they don’t get the same positive response–because it’s expected,” Weingart explains.

So, how should you respond when you’re asked to do a favor? Weingart suggests assessing each instance individually.

“What we learned is that it’s not about saying ‘no’ to everything, but figuring out what you should be saying ‘yes’ to and ‘no’ to,” Weingart says.

Additionally, she says that you should look at every ask with open eyes, and then ask yourself:

  • “What am I being asked to do?”
  • “Is this a promotable task or not?”
  • “If it a promotable task, is it my turn [to earn a promotion]?”
  • “Who else is being asked?”

Based on how you can answer the above questions, figure out how to respond in a way that is appropriate. “If you can’t do it, recommend someone else–and not necessarily a female,” Weingart says. Try to recommend someone who can benefit from the experience. “Presenting at a conference for a co-worker may not help me because I have presented a thousand times, but maybe it can help a junior colleague,” she continues. “Think about how this can be an opportunity to help someone else.”


Reporting by Courtney Connley.