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How devolving into people-pleasing can hold back your career

Tue, Aug 8, 2023 10:27amGrey Clock 4 min

How nice should you be at work?

We’ve supposedly moved on from the era of the militaristic chief executive who barks orders and threats. Most of us agree: We don’t like jerks. Be kind, we implore our kids.

Then we get to the office. We’ve got direct reports to rally, colleagues in other departments to convince and bosses who claim they want honest feedback. Speak with hesitation and you’re ignored. Handle your team with kid gloves and you’re a pushover, not a force to be reckoned with.

“I, personally, think you’re too nice a person to be in the job that you’re in.” That’s what Rep. Greg Murphy (R., N.C.) told Katherine Tai, the lead trade negotiator for the U.S., this spring during a hearing. His comments summed up feedback so many of us, especially women, have heard. We’re too bubbly or kind. We deploy too many apologies or exclamation marks. Yet when we do too little of all that, we’re overly aggressive.

“I want to be a nice person,” Sarah Kleinberg, the director of operations at a healthcare consulting firm, told me. She has realised, though, that being nice often makes others feel good, without actually moving a project forward or prompting a team member to improve.

“You have to have the level of confidence to be beyond people-pleasing,” she says.

‘Customer-service voice’

Many people, desperate not to offend, resort to what speaking coach Samara Bay calls “customer-service voice.” It’s that high-pitched, upspeak-y tone meant to inform the barista, I think you might be out of oat milk?

What are we saying when we use that tone? “I’m not powerful, don’t worry,” Bay says.

Making yourself non intimidating and as small as possible might work earlier in careers, she adds, making the people in charge feel secure. But as we ascend, or try to, the wavering voices can confuse others. Do it enough and people might question whether you’re leadership material, Bay says.

She recommends a vocal exercise for speaking more confidently. Pretend that you’re introducing yourself—“Hi, my name is Rachel”—while throwing a pretend ball against the wall. Match your vocal pitch to the ball’s trajectory. When you throw the ball down to the ground, you’ll hear your voice droop in energy along with the ball. Then throw the ball up, and notice the way your words sound as if you’re half taking them back. Last, throw the ball straight and allow your words to follow through, too.

“It’s the weirdest feeling to say something and mean it all the way to the end,” Bay says. “It feels brave.”

No hedging allowed

When pitching an idea, don’t undercut yourself with hedging language, says Bob Bordone, a negotiations coach. He cringes at questions like: “Would you be willing to consider letting me work remotely on Fridays?”

“It makes me just want to say no because it’s such a weak thing,” he says.

Instead, he says, start with a statement: “I wanted to talk to you about working out a new schedule.” Assure that any agreement you come to would be good for your manager and the company.

When someone tells you no, Bordone suggests trying: “How can we tackle this, even though we see it differently?” You sound strong and assertive, but not nasty, he says.

Good news for the nice guys among us: You don’t have to give up your personality to be taken seriously.

“I’m, 99.9% of the time, a jovial, happy-go-lucky guy,” says Colton Schweitzer, a user-experience designer and educator in Vancouver, Wash. When he doesn’t like the direction a project is going, he pushes back by asking questions and inserting the occasional joke.

“I’m smiling,” he says, “Even when I’m saying, ‘Are you sure about that?’”

Because he’s so pleasant, his serious moments carry weight. At one job, he cheerfully took on more work when colleagues asked—until his manager asked him to pick up the slack for an underperforming employee. He gave a resolute no. His manager dropped the issue, and seemed surprised and impressed by his response, he says.

“It’s like a currency,” he says of invoking a more stern style. “When I use it, it’s really valuable.”

Less yelling, more intensity

To be tough but not jerky, set clear expectations, says Harry Kraemer, a professor of leadership at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Before teaching, Kraemer rose to be chief executive of Baxter International, the healthcare company where he worked for 25 years. As a new manager, he would try to be everyone’s breezy friend, shrugging it off when his team turned in a project hours past deadline. The second time it happened, he devolved into yelling, only to realise he hadn’t made the stakes clear from the start.

“If I focus on being liked, the chance of being respected is very low,” he says.

He adopted a new leadership style of, “I’m not going to surprise you.” He says the yelling just made him look out of control, but following through with consequences worked. When his team missed sales targets, he gathered them for a two-hour debrief—no smiling, his voice intense.

“I don’t need a sorry,” he would tell them. “Hit the number. Do what you told me you were going to do.”

Dinah Davis, a Realtor in Highlands, N.C., still remembers advice an old friend gave her years ago on the golf course. The friend was a skilled neurosurgeon known for being direct, not touchy-feely.

“I have a great bedside manner,” she told Davis. “I just don’t have time for it.”

The advice was freeing for Davis, a former lawyer more comfortable with staunch negotiations than chirpy small talk.

“Do you want your pilot to be nice?” Davis asks. “Or do you want your pilot to get the plane on the ground?”


What a quarter-million dollars gets you in the western capital.

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Wed, Jun 12, 2024 5 min

I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”