“Is it possible to just be too nice at work?” asked a young woman last week during the Q&A part of a speech I had given about my book. I sighed and thought: We’re still there. Yes, it is not only possible to be too nice but it’s harmful to you, and to those you love. By being too accommodating you give away all of your personal power. Yes, you may dodge conflict that could arise from saying no to someone, but the next time around (and there will surely be a next time) it becomes even harder to say no. Eventually, by being so ‘nice’ to everyone around you, there is nothing left of you. You’ve lost your center, the inner compass that guides and protects you from emotional harm. You’ve lost…you. I know all about this because in the beginning of my career I was too nice, and I was taken advantage of repeatedly. I wanted affirmation so badly. I had to learn how to create some boundaries for my own sanity. I role-played saying “Sorry, a bit buried right now” or “Sorry, I have a deadline” before the problem could crop up. I was never rude: I always delivered the lines with a smile and a shrug. It got easier. Most of us have others in our lives we love and are responsible for, whether it’s kids, a partner, or pets. We need to make a living so that we can help to support them. We need to have something left over to give emotionally after work. This is your inner circle. You need them and they need you. Often we people-please because we are trying to affirm our own worth. If you need me, I’m of value, right? I did this in spades my first few years of work at HBO, feeling the need to ‘live up to’ this incredible job I had. Calling on cable operators in Peoria or Eau Claire, Wisconsin was so incredible? So glamorous? I recall the moment this all changed, when I got promoted and had a team working for me. Now I had a legitimate reason to set boundaries! I became much more effective during those hours spent at work. Yes, it’s possible to be too nice, and it’s harmful to you and those you love. As author Melody Beattie writes: “Caring works. Caretaking doesn’t. We can learn to walk the line between the two.” Practice saying no with a smile and shrug. It gets easier, and life gets infinitely richer.
Want to get ahead in your job this year? Tune in and watch the World Series. That’s not just a game you’re watching—that’s a study in three key elements everyone needs to succeed in the workplace.
1.) Grit. This is the Big Show, where it’s often the team who wants it the most that will win. That’s certainly true this year, with two wild card players, Kansas City and San Francisco, competing for the trophy. They overcame great odds. Neither underdog team had the best record in their division coming into the playoffs. What they had was the most grit.
There have been many great moments of grit in baseball. One occurred in the LA World Series of 1988, which my husband and I attended. It was game one, the LA Dodgers were playing the Oakland Athletics, and LA was down by one run in the ninth, with two men out. There was a man on base with one out left to go. It looked bleak. Dodger’s power hitter Kirk Gibson wasn’t playing due to injuries in both legs and a stomach virus. All of us fans gasped when Gibson hobbled out of the dugout to pinch hit. He batted to a full count, and a moment later he somehow powered a homerun with pure upper body strength, and raw grit. The Dodgers won 5-4, and took the World Series in five games.
The baseball field is much like the work place, the ‘playing field’ where men and women gather every day, and those with the most resilience and drive make their way to senior roles. Baseline talent gets you into the game, but it’s the grit to keep pushing that makes winners. Winning takes staying power. I tell many women I work with today that talent is necessary, but not sufficient to get us into senior roles. We also need grit.
I attended a conference a few years back where former ABC TV newscaster Meredith Vierra told a story from early in her career. One Friday her boss called her in and told her she wasn’t cutting it at the company, and he fired her. She went home very distraught, and her dad asked her what was wrong. She told him her boss didn’t think she had what it takes. He paused, then asked, “What do you think?” She thought a second, and said she didn’t agree. Then she got mad. The following Monday she walked into her boss’ office and told him she did have what it takes! He rehired her.
2.) Composure. Batters come into the box and often take a deep breath before they face down the pitcher. Pitchers, too, use deep breathing techniques to regroup on the mound, or to slow themselves down before delivering the next pitch. Hitters and pitchers who are calm and levelheaded—composed—are enormously effective. Composure is important in the workplace too. Having a calm and confident presence shows you’re grounded, and in control. It communicates to the work team that you make rational, well-reasoned decisions. Composure is important for women, because there still aren’t many of us in senior roles and like the pitcher on the mound, people are watching. Finding techniques to remain composed in the workplace is key.
3.) Win—and Lose—with Grace. Baseball teaches that winning and losing are just a part of the game, as they are a part of one’s work experience. For women, this is an especially important lesson. Most of us working today didn’t play team sports growing up like little boys did. We didn’t play with the frequency, if we played at all. So when we come into the workplace as adults, how the game of business is played out diverges dramatically. Men play to win or lose and seldom make it personal. It’s just a game. Women try for win-wins, which is a laudable goal, but rarely happens in practice. When one loses, it’s often tough not to take it personally. We learn how to lose only with practice. Then we come to see that losing means you’re in the game, you’re squarely on the playing field, and you can, and will, win next time. With more practice, it becomes easier to take loss in stride, to handle it with grace, and to step up with more grit the next time to get the win.
Baseball has some of the finest examples of taking loss with grace. Perhaps the greatest one involved an unspectacular pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, named Armando Gallaraga. In the summer of 2010, Gallaraga found himself one out away from a perfect game. He would be vaulted into the baseball elite. With two out in the ninth, Gallaraga threw a pitch and the batter connected and began running to first. Man out! Except, umpire Jim Joyce called him safe. Everyone could see it was the wrong call. The stands erupted. But what was done was done.
Before this 2014 season, there was no call review in baseball (except for homerun challenges). Gallaraga’s perfect game was lost. Later ump Joyce reviewed the tape, and saw that he’d blown the call. Meanwhile, the press hounded Gallaraga but he kept quiet. No badmouthing. No complaints. The next night Joyce umped at Comerica Park again, and Gallaraga emerged from the dugout, holding the lineup card which he walked over to Joyce, and then shook his hand. And for the first time in baseball history, a game official broke down and cried on national television. Later, when asked about it, Gallaraga had three words to say: “Everybody makes mistakes.” So Armando Gallaraga did not go down in baseball history for pitching a perfect game. Instead he’ll be remembered as a quiet pitcher who handled loss with grace and courage.
This story reminds us that loss can have little, or in Gallaraga’s case, nothing to do with one’s personal contributions. In the work setting, examples of that are group layoffs and company mergers. Learning to distinguish between losing due to team circumstance, versus losing because of one’s mistakes, is critical conditioning for senior management roles.
Mistakes, or ‘errors’ in baseball terms, are the one way that baseball teaches a unique lesson. In 1991 Baseball Commissioner Francis Vincent said “I find it fascinating that baseball, alone in all sports, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.” Mistakes are a natural part of any game we play, including the game of business. Baseball scorekeepers record errors and throw them up on the scoreboard for all to see. Errors are counted just like runs and hits—these three data points are indelible parts of the game. On our playing field/workplace, mistakes are just a part of our rigorous truth, that which says perfection is a myth, and it is errors, missteps, that teach us the most lasting lessons.
In all of these elements—grit, composure, losing with grace—baseball is a great teacher for our work lives, and perhaps our home lives too. So as the World Series gets played out this week, pay attention to the whole game. Every part has its lessons to teach.
Stan Musial died this week. Most baseball fans, like me, know what a powerhouse athlete he was. He was called a “gamer” in the media coverage, which meant someone who comes through when the game’s on the line. For women, this one thing—being a gamer—can help us to have great career success like Stan did in baseball.
The word “gamer” has become associated with players of video games, but the Stan Musial definition is more apt for business people. It’s an attitude—an inner, competitive drive to win when the game’s on the line. In our case the game is business, and the win is moving our careers and our companies to the next level of success.
Gamesmanship is not easy for women; I give whole seminars on the topic. We aren’t socialized this way, as men are. It comes easier for us to cooperate than to compete. It helps if we’ve played sports as a child growing up. There we learn how awesome it feels to win on a ball field, and how to take losing in stride without personalizing it.
Here’s one example of being a gamer that women have trouble with: In a business negotiation, there is a certain rhythm to the back and forth as offers are thrown out, accepted or rejected, and new creative ways are advanced to close a deal. Less is more in terms of the verbal volley. There will inevitably be that moment when you must pause, and wait. The wait can feel interminable. You must be comfortable in the silence. For some reason we have the need to fill that yawning gap of time with our words. Doing that can crush you in a negotiation. Count to 60 (not 10 or 20—60) slowly, quietly to yourself. Keep waiting until the other party responds to you. Maintain eye contact while you are waiting.
Some gamer things women do very well, like anticipating the opponent’s next move. Pro athletes watch a lot of taped footage of the next team they’re playing so they can anticipate how the plays will go down, and to uncover the team’s strengths and weaknesses. We do this in business with thorough preparation. For example, if you are a candidate up for a promotion, preparing for the interview(s) is critical. Roleplaying what might be asked of you and how you should put your best foot forward—these are gamer moves. I have found women to be absolutely excellent in anticipating clients’ and colleagues’ next moves when the game is really on the line.
There are many other techniques to being a successful gamer, such as the art of the bluff, reading the ‘tell’ (a huge one in professional poker), and the walk away. The key to all of this is your mindset. Always know that if you lose a round, the next day you’ll probably win one. Learn from it, regroup, and go back on the field, or, if you’ll forgive my mixed metaphors, go back into the scrum. I promise that if you think like a gamer, you’ll come out of the muddy mess with the ball.