My client, a single child of an overworked single mother, was emotionally rewarded as a child for "not asking for much." As a child, she was responsible and wise beyond her age. This unfettered self-sufficiency continued as she worked her way up the corporate ladder, wherein she took on more than her share of the responsibility and loosely led a team of "easygoing executives."
The problem is what I call the "lenient rescuer leader" accepts underperformance to stay popular and then rescues others once a crisis arises.
Often they are women leaders who see themselves as nurturing leaders.
They don't draw boundaries to avoid losing followers and overcompensate for the followers' incompetence.
My client continued to play nice after a promotion she'd been working for the past few years was handed over to another colleague with much fanfare. Once the angst and the envy of the missed opportunity ceased, she realised that she was not seen as a serious contender for growth within the organisation she had invested more than a decade in.
Though my client was popular, her connections were transactional. Colleagues and stakeholders got what they wanted, and she, in return, received validation for being the "nice team player." She realised that her executive presence needed an upgrade. She couldn't depend on the persona of 10 years ago to take her ahead. She needed to evolve to the next level of executive presence.
With some initial coaching, she began to notice ways this reputation had manifested around her:
• Her meetings lasted longer.
• She was left out of conversations where "real" decisions were made.
• She was in "firefighting mode" each day, and it brought about the lackadaisical attitude of her team.
• There were moments of familiarity that made her uncomfortable. She was shrugging it off as friendly, but with time it began to irk her.
• She rescued those who did not show up fully in their professional roles.
It was all fun and games until resentment set in. As she moved into her forties, being taken seriously meant more to her than being the nice girl. She had tried reading self-help books about bias, drawing boundaries and tips for being taken seriously as a leader and a woman. But without deep self-awareness, any changes were short-lived. After we started working together, she moved up a few rungs in another organisation. The decision to work on herself and her image in a new environment was hers.
Here are five ways you can get out of the niceness trap, too:
1. Don't be everything to everyone.
Being universally competent is not possible in one lifetime, and there are always people who will make you feel less competent.
There will always be something someone can do better than you. Surround yourself with individuals who shore up your weaknesses with their strengths. In smaller moments of being permissively lenient, draw boundaries, and step back in moments of unwarranted rescuing. Over time, you will be able to redefine behavioural expectations.
2. Set the intention.
Focus on getting work done instead of working based on your desire for popularity. Yes, leniency as a leader is a narcissistic trait. Remember, the intention cannot be you or your need for approval. Verbalise intentions at work as a reminder to yourself and to set the tone for your team.
3. Get out of the rescuer mentality.
Letting people sink and swim will lead to a stronger team. The more you add value, the more self-worth you may be stripping your team of.
Self-efficacy increases self-confidence and allows people the chance to produce specific accomplishments.
There's also the pride of having agency over crafting a life and career, and the genuine pride an individual takes in their work adds to that of the team's collective pride. Teams fail when they don’t believe in themselves. Take off your cape and let them rescue themselves and each other.
4. Manage up.
A calm exterior is important for a mature executive presence. Last-minute hurriedness or not holding colleagues and teams accountable for deadlines means you have not managed or led well. Remember, while managing down will get you followership, it is really those higher up who decide how the opportunities trickle down. Be strategic in managing your reputation!
5. Fill your own void.
Expecting others to heal your own void is akin to saying, "I don’t like and respect myself enough and I was wondering if you have some confidence to spare?" You’re complete and whole with or without validation. Asking your colleagues to soothe your ego can be stifling and ultimately can make them lose respect for you in the long term. Seek support outside of work through a coach or mentor.
The glass ceiling is thick.
The United Nations recently found that close to 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias against women. To have a breakthrough presence, you have to break stereotypes and not be afraid to be disagreeable once in a while.