Excuse me, but politeness is ruining your career

We’ve been lied to.
Businesswoman not being polite
Image via Shutterstock

“Manners cost nothing”, that timeless mantra of mothers and schoolteachers, is a fallacy when it comes to the workplace. Acting obnoxious projects and consolidates power. Snobby, condescending salespeople sell more than their polite counterparts. And research has shown that agreeableness and income are negatively correlated. Assertiveness, aggressiveness and attitude may insult the tenets of politeness, but they help the ambitious climb to the top of the pile. If becoming a self-made millionaire is a reasonable proxy for success, it’s worth noting that 90% of them believe that it is important to “exploit the weakness of others”.

There is a slight caveat, though. The pay-disagreeableness study found that the effects were only pronounced for ill-mannered men. Women who were disagreeable weren’t paid more. Neither were agreeable women. In fact, women remained on the lowest pay grade regardless of their behaviour.


“Employees are subject to gender stereotypes in the workplace. Males are expected to exhibit masculine qualities, including disagreeableness. Females are expected to exhibit feminine qualities, including agreeableness. When one gender defies such stereotypes, the employee can be perceived as deviant.”

In short, impoliteness pays – but the stereotype that women should never be aggressive stops us from enjoying this advantage.

The solution? To get more assertive, of course. Displaying dominant traits isn’t just about beating the men at their own game, it’s about smashing the submissive stereotypes that hold back career women everywhere.

Impoliteness in the workplace isn’t about intentionally insulting co-workers or bullying subordinates. It’s about being willing to take difficult decisions, prioritising long-term benefits over short-term people pleasing, and about being unafraid to tackle any challenge with confidence and self-belief.

The following mannerisms might not be polite, but they’re incredibly effective when used correctly. Are you ready to be rude?

  • Impose

Sales and networking are not only the remit of salespeople. Especially in senior roles, these are crucial skills to master. But both run up against the polite-person’s aversion to Being a Nuisance. The trick is to start believing in the benefit of whatever you are peddling. Nobody ever begrudged someone for introducing them to an innovative cost-cutting solution or their new star hire!

Taking the time to do some basic research should mean the targets you identify should have a genuine interest in what you have to say. As such, call or walk up to them with confidence, and tell them upfront why they should hear you out.

  • Demand

1 in 5 people never negotiate their salary. Such people subsequently end up earning an average of $500,000 less by the time they’re 60. Unfortunately, women make up a disproportionate percentage of these no-negotiators. Worse, they tend to ground their reason for doing so in social niceties – 31% said they feel “uncomfortable” demanding more money, and 18% say they’re worried they’ll seem “pushy”.

Asking for more isn’t ungrateful – it’s business. There’s only one person in every negotiation room who is 100% invested in you and that’s you, so always be your own personal cheerleader and go after what you deserve. The trick is to always justify the raise or promotion you’re asking for. Companies don’t give out money for free but if you can demonstrate the extra value you add they’ll take your request seriously. The fact is that when it comes to being rewarded in business it can often be a case of don’t ask, don’t get.

  • Interrupt

The frequency with which people talk over each other in meetings is considerable. Unsurprisingly, it is women who bear the brunt of the interruptions, which is a problem when taken in the context of studies that show that employees who talk more are considered more competent.

While you shouldn’t rush to shout people down, take steps to ensure your voice is heard. Be quick to jump in any available pauses, but if you’re never given a chance to speak, don’t be afraid to create one: it’s not a coincidence that all senior women share the trait of frequently interrupting people. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking over someone, then commit to challenging anyone who speaks over you. You don’t have to death-stare them into silence, but a calm ‘sorry, I wasn’t quite finished with my point’ should embarrass them into giving you the floor.

  • Assert

Throughout the decades-old arguments about if and how men and women use language differently, a recurring linguistic trait frequently attributed to women is the use of “tentative language”. Whether tentative language – such as hedging, tag-questions and question-intonation- is inherently female or not, it is undoubtedly a terrible way to convey authority or influence people. A speaker who uses tentative language seems unsure of themselves and their statement, making listeners less likely to agree with them or take their recommendation on board.

When you have something to say, say it assertively. Of course there are occasions when uncertainty is desirable but if you’re confident of an idea or hypothesis then present it as you would present a fact. People are conditioned to pay attention to authoritative speech.

  • Criticise

Disagreeing with someone might be discourteous, but in the workplace bad decisions mean poor profits, which makes speaking up a necessary evil. Good companies will welcome constructive disagreement as a way to refine and improve ideas, even when a subordinate is disagreeing with their boss. Criticising effectively means keeping a cool head and arguing dispassionately (no matter how infuriating your colleagues may be!) Never let an argument become personal and always choose your battles wisely to avoid seeming pugnacious.

To keep the conversation civil, present your challenge as a way to build on a previous suggestion and develop existing ideas. But never be afraid to push for a vision that you believe in. Success comes from perseverance.

Beth Leslie writes graduate careers advice for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency specialising in matching candidates to their dream internship. Check out their graduate jobs London listings for roles or, if you’re looking to hire an intern, have a look at their innovative Video CVs.

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