I have just given a talk to sixth formers at my daughter’s school about my experience in business. I told them that all my promotions in a long career of 26 years in five different organisations have only come about because my boss liked me. As it turns out, these weren’t necessarily the times when I thought I deserved it most.

I suggested to the students, therefore, that the best way of getting ahead was to make themselves likeable, but they stared at me in frank disbelief.

The thanks I received from the head was somewhat lukewarm. Was this bad advice to have given?

Manager, female, 48


Lucy’s answer

Your advice is honest, refreshing – and likeable. It is also supported by the facts. There was an interesting study done a few years ago in the Harvard Business Review that investigated whether competence or niceness was the greater asset in career terms. It concluded, hardly surprisingly, that people who are both charming and brilliant do best and people who are neither do worst. But when it comes to choosing between the person who is good but horrid and the person who is nice but useless, the second gets chosen over the first over and over again.

Even though your advice was right, it was still the wrong advice to have given. Based on my experience with teenagers, the challenge is to coax them into spending a little less time on Facebook and a little more doing their homework. If they are told that what counts is niceness (which most of them probably believe they possess effortlessly anyway) they will conclude that it is fine to spend even more time “chilling” than they do already.

There is a second, more sinister, reason for the head’s lack of enthusiasm: you are a woman and you were talking at a girl’s school. If you had been a man addressing a group of boys, the head might have applauded rather more heartily. Boys tend to believe that if they get chosen for anything it is axiomatic that they are the best; girls are just like you: they blame their success not on talent but on luck or, as you did, on niceness. Your sort of message was no help at all. What they need is advice on how to blow their own trumpets, not another elegant lesson in self-deprecation.

Your advice also touches on another tricky problem: if a woman becomes too successful she is no longer considered nice. High-flying women who are extremely good at their jobs tend to be judged less likeable than successful men; girls are still tempted to believe that you can be nice or clever, but not both.

What you ought to have said to these girls was that you had been promoted because you are very good at your job. And that you can do that and be nice at the same time. If you had put it like that I bet the head would have been standing and clapping, delighted to have introduced her girls to a woman who was at home with her talent and success – without showing the tiniest sign of being a beastly old harridan.

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