Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice: Girl Rules and Other Stupid Ideas You Learned When You Were Little

“Sue” called me the other day on the brink of tears and wanted to know what to do. As she shared, I realized she was more upset with herself “for not being more of a team player” than the guy that “played politics” on her.

Be nice…how many women have been told this throughout their lives, yet are still struggling to reach their goals?  Sometimes we can’t be Ms. Nice Girl.  Be nice, but be confident, don’t apologize and learn to be your own hero in life.  Don’t be nice just because you’ve been told to, be nice because you want to, and then kick some butt while doing it.

As girls, we learn the “rules” to play and be nice along with other advice that doesn’t serve us as women.   For example:  
–      You can’t be feminine and powerful at the same time
–      Be pretty. Be seen and not heard
–      You have to smile and don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, even at the expense of your own
–      You can be smart, you can be right, but nobody will play with you if you are
–      You can have a relationship or you can be a leader — you can’t have both
–      You have to share, you have to be fair, you have to help out, bring cupcakes, fix all the boo-boos and make it all better

Looking out on an audience full of professional women as I shared these girl rules, I saw plenty of nods of agreement that these rules don’t work. Yet, many women, including some in that audience, still play by these girl rules and most don’t even know they are.

Imagine this scenario: “Sue” calls you on the brink of tears and wants to know what to do. Here’s what she shares: Big Boss tells her and a co-worker, “Brad,” to review a new opportunity. They agree to work separately at first to make sure they both come up with the best solution without “groupthink” going on.   Okay, seems a bit odd, but reasonable, right?

A week goes by, Sue reaches out to Brad and they schedule a phone call to review findings. The appointed time comes, and Brad is a no-show. Sue sends an “I’m sorry, I must have gotten the time wrong….” email.   It could happen, she could have misunderstood, right?

Two days later, Brad sends a reply: “Let’s review at 2PM.” Sue’s on the line at 2PM sharp, but no Brad. Time is running out. Fast forward to Thursiday evening with the Big Boss conference call the next morning.   At 8:30PM, an email with a summary of Brad’s review arrives and it’s miles apart from Sue’s conclusions. To make matters worse, he cc’d Big Boss that the company would be saving millions with HIS recommendation.   Sue knows his finding isn’t true… She also knows all too well that the claim of saving millions will trump the truth and her voice will be drowned out by the magic of dollar signs.

Now, most of us think we would have seen it coming. Yet, it’s easier than you think to get blindsided. It’s seeing it in hindsight where we see Sue made it easy. This type of event happens over time, one decision at a time, so we often don’t see it coming until it’s too late. We “play nice” one decision at a time.   Sue didn’t appreciate the real meaning of the string of events; Brad wasn’t playing by the same rules.   Sue never looked beyond the possibility of everyone playing nice.

Sue gave up her personal power to play nice. It is a hard-lump moment, for Sue when she realizes Brad saw this opportunity as a competition and she saw it as collaboration.   Playing nice is not the same as being nice or a team player. You can be a team player and still be alert for another’s motivations – not everyone always plays nice.

Three rules to be nice, be a team player and maintain your personal power

You can be nice, be a team player and be a leader. They are not mutually exclusive when you play by the following rules.

Rule Number 1:   Teach people how to treat you. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Set and maintain clear boundaries and have high expectations for how you will be treated.   Use those same values and guidelines for how you treat others.

We teach people what we will and won’t accept by keeping clear boundaries. If you are a recovering pushover, expect pushback.   Start now, and as long as your boundaries are clear and consistent with everyone, then in time they will be respected. It is when we play favorites or accept excuses without consequence that others will see how far they can continue to push you.

Rule Number 2: Stop apologizing, you don’t have to be nice.   I’m so sorry to have to say this, but unless you ran over their cat, you are not sorry. More often than not, whatever happened is unfortunate. You are not always responsible for everyone and everything. By always being ready with a steady stream of “I’m sorry….” it trivializes any real apology you may need to make and in turn, destroys your credibility.   It also undermines your confidence. When you continually hear yourself say, “I’m sorry,” it sets up a self-destructive internal dialogue that reinforces the be-nice-girl-rule of “take care of everyone else at the expense of me”.

Don’t be nice.

When someone blows you off like Brad did to Sue, don’t take the blame for misunderstanding; simply put a hold on the emotions and stick to the facts. Be direct – no shame, no blame, no preambles or language softeners.

Sue was worried about how Brad would feel if she asked for what she needed. Look, we are all grown-up now, worry more about the soundness of your facts and less about playing nice. Candor is respected, especially when it’s backed up by results.

Rule Number 3: It’s not someone else’s job to save you. Stop behaving like you want to be saved. You are not Snow White and there is no Prince Charming.   Girls are brought up to believe their locus of control is outside them; that they must look to how others feel before making a decision.

You know there is no pixy-dust, no ‘prince’ or other ‘princess’, so how does a grown woman behave to be saved?

At work, it often goes like this:   As manager, you know what needs to be done, but you like being known as an inclusive leader. You ask each member of your team, “What should we do about ‘X’?”   Your female team member(s) mention one or two options. You nod to acknowledge that you heard.

Men, on the other hand, begin by seeing your question, and you, as indecisive. Begrudgingly, a man will reply with a solution. You nod in acknowledgement that you heard.   He now believes he has solved the problem. If more than one man is consulted, they each believe they have solved the problem.   They all fume when another solution is used.   You fume when they complain that is not what was agreed to.

Boys are brought up to believe they have the power to make correct decisions without input. They have an internal locus of control, not external. They are taught that just like Prince Charming, they have the power to ride in and save the day…. Misunderstandings all around and you already knew what needed to be done.

We Are Not Little Girls Anymore

You are the only one that can shape your life; no one else can or will advocate on your behalf like you can.

As a woman, it’s time to implement new rules:
–      You can be feminine and powerful at the same time by taking total ownership of your outcomes.
–      You will be seen and heard by being direct and when you show you are smart and right, people will seek you out.
–      It’s good to share and be fair when you can, but sometimes not everyone is going to be okay and that’s okay.
–      The world does need you to help out, bring cupcakes, fix boo-boos and make it all better…but that can only happen when you are in charge of you and your destiny.

Be nice, Be a Team Player, and You Will Gain Positive Power

Power is not a ”dirty” word when used wisely. Reframe any lingering negative beliefs about the word “power” to a new definition of self-directed action. Now go take action!

Sharon Sayler, MBA, CEC, ACC, and founder of Competitive Edge Communications works with high achieving women to increase their leadership, relationship and sales skills to dramatically increase their business success. Get a complimentary copy of her widely acclaimed 25-page e-book The 7 Instant Career Killers Women Do and companion audio at

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