May 2010Volume 15Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Is nice a four-letter word?

Nice: ( adj.) friendly, kind and pleasant

--Macmillan Dictionary

I was recently in court as a judge was contemplating which attorney to appoint to represent the children in a divorce case. One of the attorneys standing before the bench suggested a woman attorney who is well-known and respected for her work representing children. The judge looked at the attorneys, paused, and said: “She’s nice, but I think we need someone stronger.” I began wondering immediately— are “nice” attorneys perceived as weak? Can one be nice, but still a successful, effective attorney? Of course, as any attorney would do, I began researching my question.

Not surprisingly, I found this issue impacts more women than men. Trudy Bourgeois, author of Her Corner Office: A Guide to Help Women Find a Place and a Voice in Corporate America, summarized it well. “Many women have adopted the ‘nice girl’ syndrome as a result of the expectations and lessons learned in childhood. . . Little girls are taught to play nice, put others first, and always think about other people’s feelings,” she says.1

There seemed to be a large amount of advice focusing on ways to overcome being nice. There were articles and books about how being nice is a liability in the business world. I will call this group of people the “get over it” group. They insisted that professional women should do everything possible to escape the pejorative label of “nice.” One of the foremost advocates for this position is Lois Frankel, author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make that Sabotage Their Career.2 The title says it all. Dr. Frankel coaches women on how to overcome being “nice.” Like Bourgeois, she also traces the source of woman’s desire to be nice to the failure to overcome the stereotype of little girls. Dr. Frankel directs professional women to stop acting like little girls and become women: “[b]eing a girl is certainly easier than being a woman. Girls don’t have to take responsibility for their destiny. Their choices are limited by a narrowly defined scope of expectations. And here’s another reason why we continue to exhibit the behaviors learned in childhood even when at some level we know they’re holding us back: We can’t see beyond the boundaries that have traditionally circumscribed the parameters of our influence. It’s dangerous to go out of bounds. When you do, you get accused of trying to act like a man or being ‘bitchy.’ All in all, it’s easier to behave in socially acceptable ways.” Dr. Frankel’s book focuses on ways to overcome niceness, not harmonize it with our lives as professionals. Though she offers much sound advice, she also lists what she perceives as mistakes women make in an effort to be nice. She claims such mistakes include working hard, polling others before making decisions, and sharing personal information. She directly encourages women to abandon such “girlish” behavior, grow-up and behave as women.

I was disheartened. What these “get over it” experts seem to have concluded is this: being nice and successful are mutually exclusive. A nice person is doomed to a life of being perceived as weak. Unwilling to accept this, I press on, looking for an answer I could accept. . . and to my relief I found it!

In the bestselling book, aptly titled The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World With Kindness, by Linda Thaler and Robin Koval, we see the antithesis to the “get over it” approach to being nice.3 Thaler and Koval explain that we should embrace being nice. What goes around comes around in the business world, and being nice creates endless paths to success. Whether it is being referred clients based on small pleasantries with your doorman or being nominated for awards by one’s competitors, being genuinely nice will always produce the best results. The book has been described as the “antidote to our increasingly mean-spirited culture.” The principles of the book seem so simple, almost childlike. In fact, it may be seen to espouse the same “little girl” behavior so maligned by Dr. Frankel: you tell the truth, you treat others as you would like to be treated, you freely give credit to others, and you say thank you. Here are a few of the Power of Nice principles:

• Positive impressions are like seeds. Favorable impressions find their way back to you and have a domino effect.

• You never know. Being nice to strangers, as well as colleagues can pay huge dividends. You never know where your next opportunity may come from.

• You will know. Even if you never see a person you have treated badly again, even if no one sees or knows of your rudeness or bad behavior, you will know. It will be in your mind and heart when you walk into a meeting and try to convince the people in the room that they should put their faith in you. The power of nice is not about running around manically smiling and doing everyone’s bidding, all the while calculating what you’ll get in return. It’s not about being phony or manipulative. It’s about valuing niceness—in yourself and in others—the same way you respect intelligence, beauty, or talent.

Colorado attorney Edwin Schilling offers advice consistent with the authors of The Power of Nice. Schilling does not urge women to “get over it” and stop being nice. Rather, Schilling argues that nice people make the best attorneys. He explains “[b]y ‘nice’ I do not mean ‘wimps’ . . . [a]n attorney can be assertive and stand up for you without being mean. These are the very best.” His theory is that attorneys who are nice do not have to “compensate for their lack of skills, knowledge and expertise by being mean, nasty, and arrogant.” On the other hand, attorneys who are abusive and show-offs are dangerous. He explains that that behavior increases litigation costs and increases the stress-level of their clients. As a result, they often do not produce the best result. He summarizes that these nice attorneys “have credibility with the judges, and the client benefits from this in many subtle ways.”4

So—to be nice or not to be nice? Of course that assumes we have a choice. It is not so easy to change a person’s personality no matter how many well-reasoned tips you have from experts. So, my working answer will come from my husband, who quickly quoted a surprising source. Spoken by Patrick Swayze’s character, Dalton, in the 1989 movie Roadhouse, I think it says it all. As a roadhouse bouncer with a degree in philosophy from NYU, Dalton teaches this: “be nice….. until it is time to NOT be nice.” ■


1. Sherman, Alisa. No More Ms. Nice Guy: Do Nice Girls Really Finish Last in the Business World? Entrepreneur. Feb., 2005.

2. Frankel, Ph.D, Lois P. Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make that Sabotage Their Careers. Warner Books (2004). (Excerpts also appearing at <>).

3. Thaler, Linda and Koval, Robin. The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness. Random House (2006). (Excerpts also appearing at <>).

4. Schilling, Edwin C. You Have the Right to a Competent Attorney, or The Very Best Attorneys are Nice People appearing at <>.

Member Comments (1)

and Maya Andelou said: "I can be changed by what happens to me but I refuse to be reduced by it."

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