You can be nice and get the job done


Last year I sat down with the News Director in the Herald’s Sydney office.

‘‘I don’t think this job is suited to me,’’ I told her. ‘‘My personality does not match the culture of the newsroom ... I am too nice.’’

It had been a month of dead ends. I wasn't getting as many stories as I wanted. And I was worried this might be because I wasn't as brash or assertive as some of those around me. I felt defeated, as though my desire to be liked was pulling me away from my goals as a journalist. 

The News Director looked at me. ‘‘Well, I am nice,’’ she said, raising her eyebrow, with a knowing smile. The meaning was not lost on me: being nice is not at odds with success.


The anxiety I was feeling at the time is one that I think many people who might describe themselves as non-confrontational experience in the workplace - often women, but of course not only women.

Journalism, like many jobs, is one that would seem to reward the brazen and confident. But as I've discovered, with my own achievements in this job, these attributes are not something that should hold us back. That is, if you work diligently and hard, and embrace your "nice" attributes, you can still do well.

Last year I worked on a series of stories, videos and opinion pieces about the supply chain of Bangladesh clothes following the country’s worst industrial accident which killed over 1,000 workers. The work wasn’t easy but my colleague and I traced the clothing from its origin in Bangladesh to stores in Australia; examining the horrendous working conditions of workers who were employed to make garments for trusted Australian retail brands.

I began to see an obvious difference in the way my male colleague and I operated. While we were just as determined as each other, I would be more likely to try to get people onside, to be pleasant in getting my information, all while working furiously - but quietly.

My colleague, on the other hand, would dive right in, confidently asking the pointed questions in Bangladesh’s sweat shops.

But the different approaches worked as well as each other. I would get just as many results as he would. Together we won a Walkley award for the series, which was a credit to both journalistic methods.

Award-winning American author and journalist Joan Didion once said: "My only advantage as a reporter is that I am physically so small, so temperamentally unobtrusive and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests."

There are also many quiet achievers such as case workers, nurses and police who strive to succeed out of the spotlight. They are not only brilliant at what they do, but are humble in their approach.

I’m now working as the immigration reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. This is far away from my previous role as a music reporter in a world of reviews, sipping soy lattes with artists. It is a highly competitive round, and one where you have to push hard for information to report on complex and difficult issues. But it's still one you can succeed in without being brash or aggressive. You can do so by being diligent, determined and compassionate, which are just as important.

Back at my meeting with my news director, I think I knew the answer to my problem all along. If you’re confident in who you are, being "nice" will work to your advantage.

This is an excerpt from a speech delivered at the Attorney General Department Women's Network.


10 comments so far

  • A lot of people who think they are nice are actually just being a pushover. It is absolutely possible to be polite and get on well with other people without letting them walk all over you, and in fact I would say it's the default, but there are always those who complain that they are too nice and suffer as a result. For the most part the problem is not that they are being nice, it is that they don't stand up for themselves and there are always some people who will take advantage of that.

    If you feel like you are being taken advantage of by someone else at work then talk to the person and explain why otherwise the same thing will continue to happen. If you won't stand up for yourself with your day to day work then why would anyone else?

    Date and time
    March 27, 2014, 7:51AM
    • It's essentially about self awareness. There are the selfish, MBA, I'm-gonna-conquer-the-world, brash, often incompetent younger types who think everyone should bow and scrape before their wisdom. They actually don't have any 'cause they're far too focused on self above others.

      Then there are the bosses like mine.

      A very clued-up, educated, quietly spoken, shrewd and assertive middle aged GM who knows himself and can read others very, very well. Has worked public and private sectors. Knows how to get people on opposite sides to work together - as far as possible. A humane man. Reminds me a bit of General/Sir Peter Cosgrove. One of nature's gentlemen, a moderate, compassionate leader to his employees but Lord do not get on the wrong side of him.

      Man, when it's needed I have I seen him put aforesaid young MBA "youths" as well as uppity older managers well and truly in their place. Embarrassing just being in the same room and witnessing it. He's a family man and although he works in a corporate environment he hasn't sold his soul to the organisation.

      If only there were more of his type running things..

      Nice Guys Come First
      Date and time
      March 27, 2014, 1:14PM
  • Thanks Sarah,
    I'm actually at a cross roads career wise right now. I can leave a take a higher paying job in the same field, doing much the same work, and could well end up eventually on a just under 6 figure salary.
    Or I can stay where I am, take what's being offered through as restructure, and move into a management position. The though is scaring me - can I do it?
    You're reaffirming what I realised last night - it shouldn't be a question of 'can' - if I couldn't I wouldn't have been offered the role. The questions are 'do I want to?' and 'where do I want to be in 10 years?' Nice to hear it from others.

    Date and time
    March 27, 2014, 10:34AM
    • I think people get the word "nice" mixed up with being fair and respectful. Being fair means just that - no bias and judging performance on facts and merrit. Being respectful is about how you act with people and deliever the messages. These messages can be unpleasent, but should be delivered without the emotion that many managers seem to include.

      Date and time
      March 27, 2014, 11:12AM
      • I am nice, I do get my job done. I am so nice so sweet that people might get diabetes getting to too close to me. I don't like jerks at work...the only way to treat jerks is with similar medicine....
        Jerk to Jerk
        Nice to Nice....

        Nice, Sweet & Lovely
        Date and time
        March 27, 2014, 11:33AM
        • Nice people can be focussed and strong. You've got the goods!

          Date and time
          March 27, 2014, 1:02PM
          • Depends what you do.

            Imagine a Brain Surgeon having doubts, in fact i want their emotions is nothing more than a precise robot. Will it affect their personality. Most probably, yes i know it may be sadly and insensitive for some. .

            If anything, it should be jobs like accounting, lawyers and finance industry that should show more compassion and be nice, because i found their process involved with a lot of subjective opinions.

            To generalized a bit, maybe occupations that involved with subjective opinions should follow compassion.

            Date and time
            March 27, 2014, 1:08PM
            • I took on my first management job at age 23. I was in charge of a retail outlet for a global brand and managing a four person team. Since then I have always felt comfortable being the one in charge, managing and leading people. Over the ensuing 20+ years I have always moved into a management/leadership role in any company I joined.

              I also think I am nice and still get on well with people I managed 20 years ago, even people who were nearly twice my age at the time. Most important, I am fair and reasonable, as well as direct but not rude. I am intuitive and make an effort to understand what my team are experiencing. They are humans as well. But 'nice' in the saccharine way the word is used is not me. I am somewhat reserved and maybe a bit unsympathetic to people who do not pull their weight. I am always honest.

              I have never really thought about 'being a manager' other than that it is an instinct and a place where I feel comfortable.

              My current role is not as a manager, but I am driven and proactive in the workplace and I am also studying part time and find myself naturally directing things when we do group work. In fact I took on a non-managerial role so I could focus more on my studies without the burdens of higher duties.

              I'll move back into management as some time in the future.

              Date and time
              March 27, 2014, 2:23PM
              • In some jobs, being nice pays off. Those in your team will throw in that extra mile for you and worry if you might get replaced. It's like a tit for tat, I give you a really good quality work and you give me some flexibility when needed. It's like the difference between getting a well cooked tasty dish in the restaurant versus the saliva ridden average fare given to patrons who are jerks. You get the excellent presentation but no substance or inspiration.

                Knee Jerk
                Date and time
                March 27, 2014, 5:27PM
                • "Nice people make good managers". I wish.
                  Most line managers today are hard core b)*(&*(& -breakers intent on nothing more than ensuring their minions meet their KPIs.
                  We live in a world of management by numbers.

                  Happy Budgie
                  Date and time
                  March 27, 2014, 5:29PM

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