Calling Each Other Out and Calling Each Other In: The Grit & Grace of Accountability

“We’re good at calling each other out. But can we call each other in?” That was the question someone posed in a recent webinar I attended on the #metoo movement.

On that webinar, I heard wonderful men of all races and ages say that they genuinely want to become more aware and skillful in gender relations, but they withdraw because it feels too dangerous. I also heard women who want to express support for men, but stay silent to avoid being excommunicated for being anti-feminist. And I heard women who are just so frustrated that they read men the riot act or walk away in peeved silence.

How can we bridge this gap if we’re hiding in our corners or taking each other’s heads off?

We long for a higher standard in our behavior toward each other, and I think there’s something healthy and hopeful about this new call to accountability. But our way of holding each other to that higher standard is so limited. Calling each other out – through shame and blame – seems to be our grit-laced go-to for accountability.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many situations where unequivocal public call-outs and fierce corrections are the right response. Harvey Weinstein (who is being arraigned as I write this) and Matt Lauer come to mind. These aren’t well-intentioned guys who are fumbling to get it right. They are drunk on power and heedless of the pain they cause. And while these are very public figures, we’ve known (or known of) those guys in our own lives. Behavior like theirs should be met with righteous grit: unambiguous line-drawing, public outcry, and no-kidding consequences. The act of “calling out” belongs here and I’m all for it.

But as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “There is a difference between malice and a mistake.” Much of the sexist behavior I’ve encountered hasn’t come from a malicious dominating intent, but rather from a lack of inner and outer awareness. I’m going to call this ‘garden variety’ sexism. You know: the offhand remark, the interruptions and mansplaining, the feedback about your ‘tone’ (that your male counterparts never receive).

When we encounter garden-variety sexism, we have a choice to make. Do we call him out, pushing him into the cold light of blame, or do we call him in to a deeper conversation? A lot depends on the context, and those options are the opposite poles in a much wider range of responses.

Calling each other in is for situations where decent but flawed people mess up, and where we see (or hope) that a more respectful relationship is possible.

But what does “calling someone in“ even mean? What does it look like?

  • It means speaking up on behalf of a stronger relationship, not from a place of blame.
  • It means asking for permission to confront. “Bill, you said something in that meeting yesterday that’s still not sitting right with me. Would you be willing to talk it over?” It’s a simple and powerful alignment move that we often overlook.
  • It means preparing for the conversation about intent vs. impact. What’s tricky about garden-variety ‘ism’ behavior is that it’s often done unconsciously and without intent. But a lack of intent doesn’t erase the impact. Talking this distinction through can be a real opportunity for two people to understand each other and true up their actions.
  • It means being humble, knowing that most of us have injured or marginalized someone who was different from us. I may have a legitimate sexist beef with you, but as someone who is white, straight and cis-gendered, I have to remember that I’ve got no high horse to sit on.
  • It also means keeping it real. Calling someone in doesn’t require you to swathe your message in hearts and flowers. Be factual about what happened. Be clear about how it affected you. And after you’ve heard each other out, be specific about what you want to happen differently going forward.

What about you?

Think of a time when you said or did something that someone else experienced as hurtful or demeaning. How would you have wanted him or her to address that with you?

Can you recall sexist situations in which you responded either more wimpily or fiercely than the situation required? What did you learn from that?

How do you make the distinction between when to call someone out and when to call him in?

What does each mode invite you to attend to, summon, or manage in yourself?

 

Interested in developing your own or your team’s capacity in this area?

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How Do We Loosen the Grip of Implicit Bias?

Implicit bias is the new hot topic in diversity these days. But what is it, exactly? Why are we talking about it now? And what do we do about it? Here’s my take on those questions.

What is it?

The best way to define implicit bias is to contrast it against explicit bias. Explicit biases are the conscious judgments that we hold about other people/groups and that intentionally drive our individual, collective and/or systemic behavior. Examples include segregation, sexual harassment, bullying of LGBT people and racial profiling. On the other hand, implicit biases are discriminatory behaviors and outcomes that arise without intent. They’re often born from judgments/beliefs that we don’t even know we have and may not even agree with consciously. Here are some examples of implicit bias:

  • executives’ making important decisions on the golf course
  • the use of unintentionally denigrating turns of phrase (e.g., “He’s so articulate!” “That is so gay.”)
  • expectations of women to be the meeting note-takers and corporate party planners
  • unspoken organizational norms that pressure people to be someone they’re not in order to be accepted or successful.

While one form of bias is overt and the other more subtle, they can have similarly profound effects – not only on those on the losing end of bias, but also on the health, productivity and harmony of our collective engagement.

Why now?

Implicit bias has come to the fore for a couple of reasons. The more hopeful reason is that, having significantly reduced explicit bias from our workplace policies and practices, we can now address the subtler vestiges of inequity. It’s like manually removing the fragments of computer code that are left on your hard drive after you uninstall a program.

The other reason we’re talking about implicit bias now is that, 50 years after the civil and women’s rights eras, we’re stunned at the inequities that still exist. Reducing explicit bias hasn’t made bias disappear; it’s simply driven it underground. It’s still shaping our landscape in powerful ways, but is harder now to detect and address.

What can we do?

To address implicit bias, we have to be willing to see it, to claim the reality of it without collapsing into shame or blame, and to commit to action. I’m going to explore it through the lens of gender, but the principles apply to all dimensions of “diversity.”

We know we need to start with awareness – but what do we look for to check where implicit bias is operating? I’ve developed an “AEIOU” model to help guide your inquiry:

A = Access.  Inclusion in the conversations and relationships that matter
E = Expression.  Permission to speak freely and fully
I = Influence. Power to sway group opinion
O = Opportunity. Receipt of plumb assignments and promotions
U = Updraft. Dominant social status and systemic advantage

Let’s dive in to each of these.

Access. Are there any people or subgroups in your organization who just seem to be more “in the know” than others? Folks who always seem to just be there when the off-line decisions are made? Then this person or group enjoys the implicit bias of “access” tipping in his/her/their favor. They won’t even see that the door of access is wider for them, but others will feel it acutely.

How does this show up?  Working parents – mostly mothers – often face access bias, since a lot of business happens after hours and on weekends. The guys on the golf course don’t intend to exclude women – in fact they may wish that more women would join them there. But events held outside of 9 – 5 implicitly block mothers (and primary care-giving fathers) from important goings-on.

What you can do. Pay attention to patterns. Starting noticing who’s always got the boss’ ear, who always seems to be ‘in the know,’ who hangs out together on off-hours. If you see demographic patterns, implicit bias may be at work. Beware the inner circle; challenge yourself to create a bigger welcome mat.

Expression. Watch to see if certain people or subgroups in your organization have greater latitude than others to express themselves freely. Are some folks allowed to expound on their ideas, while others are frequently interrupted? Are some folks forgiven when they misspeak or show emotion, where others are penalized for it?   These are signs of expression bias.

What does that look like on a practical level? I hear this all the time: that a man can forcefully speak his mind and be seen as passionate. whereas a woman who speak vigorously will be labeled as bitchy, shrill or angry. To avoid getting stuck with those career-limiting labels, women may mute their strong opinions, only to receive performance feedback that they are not perceived as a leader because they don’t speak up enough. It’s a maddening catch-22 that ties women and minorities in knots – while largely escaping the majority’s awareness.

What you can do. Notice patterns in how you interpret others’ behavior. Watch your thoughts when a woman speaks directly vs. when a man does. Watch who gets the airtime in your meetings. Are the members of one particular demographic group “just quiet,” while others are more vocal? If you see these signs of expression bias, build in processes and norms that encourage everyone to speak and to be heard. If someone says that you don’t listen to her, resist the urge to label her a whiner or oversensitive. Consider that she may be accurately describing a reality of which you’re unaware.  Say thank you, explore it and act on it.

Influence. Do some people or groups regularly sway decisions and conversations, while others’ ideas routinely go “splat” on the conference room table?  If there’s a pattern to who influences and who doesn’t, there may be some form of implicit bias in action. One of my favorite satirical cartoons sums up what this looks like in practice:

Miss Triggs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What you can do: Meetings are a great place to notice influence bias. You can keep written track of who gets the group’s attention; who changes the direction of the conversation; whose ideas get adopted. And whose don’t. If you’re too “in the mix” to do this kind of tracking, pull in an organization development consultant to do it for you. You’ll learn a lot.

One of the most powerful things you can do to even the influence playing field is to actively acknowledge the input of the unheard. Like this: “Wait a minute, I want to go back to the point that Peggy made.” or “Bill, thanks for restating Carlos’ earlier suggestion. Like you, I support his idea.” Folks will follow your lead and start paying more attention to the people they’ve overlooked.

Opportunity. Opportunity bias can show up in a lot of ways. Maybe there’s a well-respected woman in your organization whose career is progressing more slowly than male counterparts’. Maybe white employees tend to get the reputation for being “high performing” after one successful project, whereas women and minorities have to mount a series of successes before they’re similarly regarded. Maybe the boss has a couple of “go-to” people for quick-turnaround or high-visibility projects. If the go-to folks share traits in common with the boss, there may be implicit bias at play.

What you can do. Go back over the special tasks and projects you’ve assigned over the last year. Who got them and who didn’t? Pay attention to how long it takes you to trust your male employees vs. the females; whites vs. people of color, straights vs. gays. If you notice that there are groups or individuals that you’ve overlooked, make a development plan to get as many of them as possible into your go-to group.

Updraft. Updraft refers to the phenomenon of ‘privilege’. In nature, an updraft is a warm current of air that lifts and carries something in flight, such that it rises and coasts with minimal effort. Updrafts occur in cultures too, where certain groups enjoy the ease of policies, structures and resources that were constructed with them in mind. Those who are placed into those cushy currents don’t even see their advantage – it’s just how things are. But have you ever heard women or minorities say, “You have to be twice as good to get half as far”?  That sums up life in the headwinds.

Historically, groups in the U.S. updraft have been whites, men, heterosexuals and the wealthy. And although the currents are shifting, these are still the groups that fly with the greatest relative ease.

What you can do: The question isn’t, “Is there an updraft?” The answer to that is yes. Rather, we need to ask, “How can those of us riding the updraft make more room?” “What systems can we reinvent so others may join the warm currents of favor?” Last, and perhaps most important, “How do we in the updraft tolerate the discomfort we may feel when our position in the current is shared by others?”

Addressing implicit bias takes commitment and persistence. And yes – to eliminate the impact of implicit bias is a massive personal and collective effort. Yet there is so much we can do to reduce bias harmful effects on people, productivity and organizational health. And it starts with each of us. Simple as A,E,I,O,U.

 

My Beef With Goldilocks

Recently, I was talking with a colleague about my work in coaching women to lead with grit and grace in tandem. The colleague replied, “Oh! I know exactly what you mean. I use the “Goldilocks” metaphor to describe that. You know: not too hard, not too soft. Just right.” To which I replied, “That’s exactly NOT what I mean.”

I’ve heard of the Goldilocks principle before, and it rankles me. I hate the idea that women leaders should strive for a tepid compromise between directness and sensitivity. That is too confining. It offers too little potential for impact. And it’s too wimpy an approach for the problems we face.

The most effective and impactful leaders I’ve worked with do not lead from the cautious, skinny middle. They fully inhabit the whole stylistic range. Rather than expressing a weak dilution of drive and compassion, they express both at full-throttle and in the same moment. They can kick butt with great kindness, and can lend you a hand without letting you off the hook. When leaders braid the robust strands of grit and grace within themselves, their outer impact is precise, skillful and potent.

People often ask me for examples of full-strength grit&grace leaders. I’ve profiled a few: first ladies Michelle Obama and Betty Ford; long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad; author, professor and TV host Melissa Harris-Perry; U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are high on my list of profiles to write.

Make no mistake, Goldilocks. You can’t hold a candle to any of them.

What about you?

Perhaps you’re lucky enough to know one of those rare leaders who has integrated a strong spine and open heart. It could be a man or woman, a public figure or private citizen.

  1. Who in your experience models that full-spectrum brand of influence?
  2. What does that leader inspire, ignite or accomplish that others don’t, can’t, or won’t?
  3. In what specific ways does her/his blend of grit and grace contribute to those kinds of results?
  4. What can you learn from his or her example that you could apply into your own way of influencing and leading others?

I’d love to hear about your role models for grit&grace leadership. So comment and let me know who they are and how they have affected you and the world around them.

“I Like Him, But You Scare Me”

When it comes to achieving equity – gender or otherwise – in the workplace, we all have a role to play.

Two of my coaching clients, Anne and Richard, work in the same company. They recently scheduled a meeting with Jeff, one of their corporate lawyers, to hammer out a contract. As Richard and Anne entered Jeff’s office for the meeting, Jeff looked up and said jovially: “Richard, I like you. But Anne, you scare me.”

Taken aback, Anne asked Jeff why. His response? “Because you have a reputation for knowing what you want and not settling for less.” She laughed it off, but it irked her.

A bit of background here: Richard is a smart, driven and opinionated guy. Not one to fret about hurting people’s feelings in pursuit of his goals, he’s “grit” all the way. While Anne is also confident and driven, she is fundamentally a grace-based person. She cares about relationships and works hard at them. She’s miserable if she offends someone, and will do whatever she can to make things right. When it comes to relationships, Richard is a lot more “scorched earth” than Anne will ever be.

But it was Anne that made Jeff nervous, which left her wondering: Why is a woman with clarity and confidence considered fearsome, while a man with those same qualities is considered awesome?  

Sadly, this is not a new question. What’s amazing to me is that we’re still having to ask it; I hear these stories all the time from my female clients. Most of the time, the scenarios play out unconsciously, which is what makes them so hard to address. Often without knowing it, we (men and women alike) hold different expectations for men’s and women’s behavior. As a result, we unconsciously fling out bias-ridden feedback. We also respond to these drive-by bias moments in a variety of unhelpful and unconscious ways: retreating, ignoring, blaming, or demurely sucking it up.

With greater self-awareness and small acts of change, everyone’s got an opportunity to step up to workplace equality. Taking Anne’s interaction with Richard and Jeff as a case study… here are some of the opportunities before us:

  1. For the person levying the criticism (Jeff)
    Jeff’s not a bad guy; he was just acting unconsciously. But unconsciousness itself is the problem, because it’s the engine of implicit bias and it has a powerful impact. So there’s an opening for Jeff to do some soul-searching here. Did he even notice the surprise on Anne’s face, which signaled that he had misstepped? What biases did his greeting reveal? How might those biases be affecting the success of this specific interaction, his behavior more widely, or his effectiveness with other women clients? And if he did have some legitimate feedback for Anne, how could he have delivered that in a way that she could actually hear and learn from? In other words, Jeff’s got a responsibility to examine whether his biases are getting in the way of his own or others’ effectiveness, as well as a responsibility to deliver feedback in a responsible, actionable manner.
  2. For the bystander (Richard)
    Richard did what a lot of folks do when someone ridicules a woman: nothing. In staying quiet, he missed the chance to restore the tone of respect toward Anne. He could have said something like, “Anne knows her own mind, and I respect that about her. And I’ve never worked with a more collaborative, competent colleague.” By staying silent, Richard tacitly gave Jeff the green light for his offhanded comment.  By speaking up, he could have sent a clear message and changed the dynamic significantly.
  3. For the woman (Anne)
    Anne’s instinct was to dismiss the feedback by labeling Jeff a jerk. But it’s possible for Jeff to be speaking from bias (implicit or explicit) AND for Anne to do some self-reflection. Might she legitimately be doing something to get in the way of the collaborative relationships she really wants? From the other angle, was she too demure?  Should she have confronted his behavior more directly? I’m not saying that Anne should accept responsibility for someone else’s bias; I’m saying that she should ask herself whether there’s a growth opportunity embedded in the feedback.

If we want a workplace in which everyone is treated even-handedly, we all have a role to play.

What about you?

  • How often are you willing to courageously question potential bias: in yourself, in others and in the organization’s norms, systems and practices?
  • What stops you from doing that more?
  • What’s one small “practice” you could undertake today to watch for and confront bias to a greater degree?

 

Want To Increase Your Personal Power? Try Not Giving A Whit.

I was sitting across the table from Gail, a female executive in the publishing industry. We were talking about how she came to find her power as a woman leader. She said, “The day I stopped giving a sh*t was the day that everything changed for me.”

She continued. “I had an epiphany one day: this job and these people’s opinions don’t define me. I was done trying to pretzel myself into a form that was palatable to everyone else but unrecognizable to myself. And as soon as I figured that out, I felt free. And guess what. That’s when people really started listening to me.”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard versions of this story from my female clients. Over and over again, the influence or promotions that eluded women finally came to them when they stopped giving a whit. Here are a few examples:

Brenda gauged her own success by what others thought of her and whether or not they promoted her. What she had lost sight of was what she wanted, what work and environments really worked for her. Once she started navigating from her own reference points, she was able to communicate much more powerfully: not from a place of “Do you like me?” but from “Here’s what I need.” She’s now poised for promotion, and awaits this decision with her worth and inner clarity in tact … regardless of the outcome.

Jill was a real team player, consistently lauded for her willingness to step in and get the job done. Due to attrition in her department, Jill had assumed another person’s leadership duties in addition to her own. Fueled by the “attagirls” she kept receiving for her selflessness, she’d continued doing both jobs for over 18 months. But she hadn’t received better performance appraisals, a promotion or more pay.  She was exhausted, resentful and stressed out. She finally hit her breaking point and didn’t care about the consequences. She stormed into her boss’ office and informed him that she would only do this double duty for two more weeks. His reply? “I was wondering when you’d speak up.” Two weeks later, they hired someone to take on the extra job.

Susan, a law firm manager, reported to the firm’s three senior lawyers. They were all tough-minded, male, and 20 years older than she was. Because of these differences, Susan found it very difficult to influence her bosses. On one important issue on which they wouldn’t budge, Susan got totally fed up and read her bosses the riot act. Their response was, “That was great. You should do that more often.” Her forceful argument is what swayed them, but her not giving a whit is what emboldened her to speak the way she did.

Sometimes, organizations take women more seriously when women take organizations less seriously. Don’t get me wrong – I understand that it’s risky to let it fly. And I fully recognize that many women don’t have the luxury to take that risk; they need this job and can’t afford to rock the boat. But I have also seen women pull the plug on their own authority and success by over-accommodating others’ opinions and perceptions.

The experience of Gail and these other clients offers an interesting challenge: what might you gain by not giving a whit – before you hit your breaking point?

What about you?

  1. Have you ever tried to change yourself to accommodate others, for little or no return?
  2. What was the cost of that accommodation and how do you feel about that?
  3. Have you ever had the experience of taking a risk when you stopped caring about the outcome, and had that risk pay off?
  4. What did you learn from that experience?
  5. What small, reasonable experiments could you make to bring “not giving a whit” behavior forward before you reach your wits’ end?
  6. How will you gauge the impact of your experiments?
  7. What are the boundaries of what you’re willing to try?  What risks would be irresponsible or reckless?

Let us know what you discover!

 

Women’s Equality: Blame Won’t Get Us There

Today is Women’s Equality Day. I’m glad that this day exists. It commemorates the game-changing moment, 95 years ago today, when women gained the constitutional right to vote in the US.  It’s important to celebrate that and to remember that there are still many women in the world without a political voice.

But I’m also sad that there’s a Women’s Equality Day, because it confirms that true gender equality still eludes us. Whether it’s a moral issue or a business issue for you, equality matters. And it’s painful to confront the distance we have yet to travel.

As we connect with our disappointment, it’s tempting to assign blame for why things are the way they are. But in my experience, blame doesn’t get us anywhere we really want. Why? Because it slams shut the possibility for change. While blamers are finding fault, blamees are attacking back or running for cover. Meanwhile, nobody’s learning. And if nobody’s learning, nothing’s changing. As one male client, who cares very much about women’s equality, said to me:

I live in fear of saying the wrong thing and being labeled an insensitive jerk. So I disengage; I stay quiet instead of speaking up; I play it safe and keep my distance.

Even this man, a staunch believer in women’s equality, shuts down for fear of incurring the blame blowback of ‘getting it wrong.’ That means that he doesn’t engage, doesn’t grow and doesn’t work for change.

How do we confront bias against women (and other so-called minority groups) in such a way that opens up mutual understanding, accountability and action? I think we start by changing how we relate to bias itself: not so much as someone’s fault, but rather as a shared phenomenon in which we’re all participating. It’s not that there isn’t fault to find; it’s just that fault-finding doesn’t seem to get us anywhere.

Bias is the result of a convergence of both personal and systemic influences:

  1. individual beliefs and values
  2. individual behavior
  3. culture: collective values, mindsets and patterns of behavior
  4. structures: the policies, laws, physical and organizational structures, media, etc. that we build to carry out what the culture values

These influences interact dynamically, continually affecting and being affected by each other.  After years of history and habit, these influences weave tightly together to form very solid social patterns. Some of us benefit from those social patterns and strive, consciously or unconsciously, to keep them intact. Others of us aren’t well served by the patterns and we rail against them. And as we’re protecting or railing, it’s natural to fault each other for being oppressors or malcontents.

… As if the mud-slinging will help. As if the problem lies only in our personal shortcomings. As if the solution were that one-dimensional.

In the quest for gender equity in organizational life, the questions are larger than “Whose fault is it?” And the stocktaking needs to be done by men and women alike. Based on the four influences above, here are some questions that we can engage in together to examine and shift the complicated phenomenon of bias.

Personal beliefs

  • Are there certain behaviors that I tolerate in men that I recoil at in women? Or vice versa? What do those differing reactions tell me about what I deem “OK” and “not OK” from each gender?
  • How does that impact my openness to people as they are?
  • Do I ever expect more or less from women than I do from men? If so, what assumptions are driving the difference in my expectations?

As a result of this inquiry: Which of my beliefs and assumptions most inhibit a fuller openness to women, and how can I start challenging those beliefs?  

Personal actions

  • Are there women that I could or should be advocating for that I don’t? Why don’t I?
  • Have I ever shied away from giving a woman feedback that might have helped her succeed? And if I did give feedback, was it specific and behavioral enough to enable her to take clear action?
  • Who tends to sway my opinions and thinking most often? Is there a gender dimension to who I listen to and don’t?

As a result of this inquiry: What one or two things can I start or stop doing to more actively support the women I live and work with?  

Culture

  •  Are there customs, events or practices in our organization that women don’t seem to attend or fully participate in? Might that indicate that these practices are exclusionary in some way?
  • Do we use language or ways of communicating that might exclude women or make them feel uncomfortable? How would we know?
  • When women have raised concerns about how they’re treated, how quickly or consistently have we taken action to address them? Have we given negative labels to women who have expressed their discontent?
  • Who are the formal leaders and informal power brokers in our organization? If women are sparse there, what might that tell us about the exclusive nature of our culture’s values?

As a result of this inquiry: What one or two of our patterns of collective behavior most work against a level playing field for men and women?  What new patterns do we want to establish?  How will we hold ourselves and each other accountable?  

Structures

  • Do any of our employment, promotion, performance management or development practices make it harder for women than men to excel or advance?
  • Have we established mechanisms to measure whether men and women experience this organization differently?
  • Are more women than men leaving the organization? If so, what do they tell us in their exit interviews? If they say it’s “Too late” to give feedback, what were the signals that we missed along the way?

As a result of this inquiry: Which of our practices and policies seem to create barriers to women’s success? How should we update those practices to support an equality agenda? How do we ensure that our structures are continually updated to reflect our changing cultural values? 

Blame is the quickest way I know to stop the journey toward equality. By looking at bias as a shared phenomenon, rather than as someone’s fault, we can step out of the fray and get curious about our patterns of interaction. Perhaps then we can look at bias together, without finding fault, and martial our collective creativity toward the equality that most of us really want.

 

 

 

Women As Commodities – The Underbelly of the Gender-For-Profit Motive

“When more women lead, performance improves. Firms with more women in top management are more profitable; companies with more gender diversity have more revenue, customers, market share and profits.”
– Sheryl Sandberg
“Data analyzed by Catalyst reveals that…companies with the highest percentage of women directors outperformed companies…with the lowest percentage by 26% (measured by return on invested capital).”
~ Forbes Magazine

It’s terrific that we can now quantify women’s positive impact on the bottom line. It verifies what we know intuitively: that diversity is good for business. That’s something to celebrate.

But there’s an underbelly to quantifying human value in monetary terms. It supports a mindset of women as a commodity, as a thing to be used for shareholders’ benefit. This doesn’t feel like progress to me; it feels like regression.

Are we really comfortable with measuring human value in such utilitarian terms? Let’s say this actually works for women, that their profit potential affords them greater access to the top ranks. Does this then become the burden of proof for other groups who have been traditionally excluded? Do we give people a place at the table only when they can prove themselves profitable to those already seated there?

Women are not commodities. They are neither a “strategic imperative” nor a means to an end. I’m not saying that there’s no role for an economic case for gender equality. But at best, it’s a partial measure of value; at worst, it’s an immoral one.

 

 

Can You Lead Confidently When You Don’t Know It All?

“When do you feel confident as a leader?” This is a question I often ask my female coaching clients, because so many of them struggle with self-confidence. Almost without exception, their reply is, “I feel confident when I ‘know my stuff’ inside and out.” Knowledge is a definite inner authority-booster. But when it’s your primary source of trust in your leadership abilities, you’re in a precarious position, because it means that you’re only self-assured when a) all things are knowable and b) you have the time and ability to know them all.

Good luck with that.

What happens when you’re facing things you’ve never faced before, like a natural disaster or 9/11? Or when the market crashes and you have to get twice as much work out of half as many people? Or when a technological breakthrough in your industry renders your core product obsolete overnight? Do your people then have to wait for you to get up to speed again before they have the benefit of a confident leader?

In the face of unprecedented and unknowable challenges, a leader needs to ground her own authority in more than just knowledge. Here are three other places to look:

1. Principle
One place to find your leadership footing when the path is uncertain is in principles and values. You may not know exactly how to proceed, but you can probably identify what matters. There’s power, clarity and confidence in that. Here’s an example. During the 2013 shut-down of the US Federal Government, many companies that consult to the government were forced to lay off workers for days or even weeks. But the leaders of one consulting firm were uncomfortable making their employees bear the financial penalty for Congress’ failures. So they asked themselves this question: “What values do we want to guide our response to this situation?” Their answer: people are more important than profits. Having articulated that principle, the way became clear: they forewent their own bonuses and asked all employees to take a specific day as vacation, so that the company could shut down its facilities and save a day’s worth of energy costs. Not one employee lost even a day’s pay. Connecting to what mattered most allowed this company’s leaders to stand confidently for a position that was costly to them personally and controversial among their external stakeholders.

2. Presence
A client of mine (we’ll call her Deb) was recently leading a team that was on the brink of a disastrous work deliverable. Despite the team’s best efforts, they approached their deadline woefully unprepared, plagued by in-fighting, and scared to death of tanking an important presentation. Deb had to decide whether to back out of the presentation or go forward. Both options presented significant risk. So when she decided to go forward, she realized that she had to do it with full conviction. First, she gathered her own energy into a clear and focused commitment. Then, standing in her own resolve, she pulled the team together to acknowledge their hard work, assess both the failure and success scenarios, and reassure the team that she would have their backs, regardless of the outcome. The solid certainty of her own presence created a psychological sea-change in the group. Feeling their leader so strongly at their back emboldened them in the presentation. They aced it. And Deb learned an important lesson: that presence itself could have a huge impact on the performance of her team.

3. Personhood
When you’re out of your depth, it’s easy to imagine that somewhere out there, there’s some mythical “perfect” leader for this situation… and it isn’t you. But here’s the thing. The perfect leader isn’t here; you are. So show up. Lead with what you’ve got, whether that’s the ability to lend perspective, to keep calm, to energize, to empathize, to engender trust, to problem-solve, to facilitate, to leverage the right people, to protect and advocate. When you’re out of your knowledge depth, bring everything else you’ve got – because your folks need a leader and you’re the one who’s here. And you, in all your imperfection, may turn out to be exactly what the situation called for after all.

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Knowing your stuff is a great thing, and it certainly contributes to your credibility as a leader. But when you rest your confidence solely on what you know, then it’s contingent on conditions and you’re missing out on many other sources of authority and impact.

What about you?

  1. On what internal standards or criteria do you base your own confidence as a leader?
  2. What happens to your confidence as a leader when you can’t meet those standards?
  3. What price do you pay for that loss of confidence? What’s the cost to your team and your organization?
  4. How might you leverage principle, presence or personhood in a fuller way to support your confidence as a leader?
  5. What specific steps might you take to do that?

“Aggressive:” The ‘Scarlet A’ of the Workplace

Aggressive. Abrasive.  These “A” words have become the “scarlet letter” of organizational life, the mark of blame given to so many women who display grit in the workplace. Once that indictment attaches itself to a woman’s reputation, it sticks to her like a tattoo and is about as difficult to remove. It’s stopped many a career in its tracks and muffled many a female voice.

Aren’t we over this yet? Haven’t we outgrown our grit-intolerance in women? Apparently not. A recent study published in Fortune compared the language used in performance reviews of both male and female high performers in the tech industry. The study showed that women receive much more negative stylistic feedback than their male counterparts. This is no surprise… except in the extent to which it is still true. Here was the researcher’s bottom line:

“In all, I collected 248 reviews from 180 people, 105 men and 75 women…  Negative personality criticism — watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental! — shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.”

Let’s put that into percentages: Negative feedback about personal style showed up in only 2.4% of the performance criticisms given to men, whereas it showed up in 75.5% of the criticisms given to women. This challenges the argument that implicit bias is a figment of women’s imagination. And lest we make this into a blame-fest of men, women and men provided this skewed feedback in equal measure. Our gender biases are a collective affliction.

Organizations are still preoccupied (dare I say “obsessed?”) with how women do what they do. Not only must women get stuff done, but they must look, sound and feel “just right” to us (whatever that means) while they’re doing it. And if they color outside of those invisible stylistic lines, they could spend their careers trying to pry that Scarlet A off their chest. Truly – it’s a lot of damn work.

Navigating this stylistic scrutiny is at the heart of the coaching I do with women executives. In the course of hundreds of coaching conversations, I’ve noticed a few core patterns.

1.  Stylistic bell curve.  Countless are the times a woman client has said to me, “Of course I have room to improve. But I resent being mandated to work with a coach for speaking too directly, when my male colleagues are actually swearing, pounding their fists and yelling at people in meetings. But I’ll bet you’re not working with them.”

Gaussian (bell) graphAnd, for the most part, she’s right. Most organizations view men and women very differently when it comes to style. Imagine a “stylistic bell curve” that captures a spectrum of behavior from the most assertive (“grit”) to the most affiliative (“grace”). Women consistently report that they must operate within a very narrow swath of behavioral territory right in the middle. They feel forced to maintain an elusive, razor-thin stylistic balancing point. Confident, but not arrogant. Passionate, but not strident. Attractive, but not sexy. Collaborative, but not wimpy. And if they stray from that tiny terrain, the Scarlet A of “aggressive” or “abrasive” is likely to come down on their heads. It’s a bit like leading inside an invisible fence, where the territory is small and the electric wires keep getting moved around.

On the other hand, organizations tend to afford men much greater stylistic leeway. They generally call foul on a man unless his behavior is out to the extremes. They generally don’t brand him as “abrasive” or “aggressive.” And rarely do they interpret his grit perceived as a fixed personal shortcoming. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m just saying that, at least according to the Fortune study, it happens about 3000% less often to men than to women.

2.  Bait-and-switch. Early in their careers, women, especially are often rewarded for grit traits, such as ambition, drive, critical thinking and toughness. In order to be seen as credible professionals, and later as “leadership material,” women must often  demonstrate a considerable degree of grit. They must prove that they can “hack it;” “keep up with the guys;” “show no weakness.” So women learn to hone and rely on toughness in order to succeed.

And then it happens. The Scarlet A arrives on their foreheads, and they never saw it coming. Often out of nowhere, women start receiving criticism for the very traits and behaviors for which they’d been praised in the past. My practice is full of women struggling to make sense of this wild shift in the winds of feedback and to navigate it before their career hits the rocks. To them, it feels like a real bait-and-switch of expectations, and seems to happen most predictably when women reach mid- to top-level leadership.

3.  Assertive vs. aggressive. I often hear women say, “There’s no winning. If you’re strong, you’re automatically considered aggressive.” I fully grant the heightened risk that women face of being negatively judged for their grit. At the same time, within these women’s own organizations, I see other powerful women who have NOT been branded with the Scarlet A. What’s going on there?

The powerful women executives I’ve seen who escape the Scarlet A are no pushovers. In fact, their styles may even be grit-centric. But unlike most of my clients, they also tend to have a good bit of grace online, which enables others to see them as assertive, rather than aggressive.  I’ve coached many women who were labeled as aggressive, and most of them shared a characteristic over-reliance on grit behavior, to the neglect of grace. Without the modulating effects of grace in a grit personality, the grit goes into a hyper concentrated form of itself, which I call “growl.” In each case, our coaching work focused on helping the grit-based women to reintegrate some needed aspects of grace. The result? Toughness with heart: an emergence out of growl territory into healthy, grace-infused grit style.

My observation is that when the Scarlet A befalls a leader of either gender, growl is usually present. This is not to minimize the fact that there’s still great gender disparity. Organizations will tolerate a whole lot more grit from men than they will from women. But whenever the term “aggressive” is levied, there is very often a valid invitation to cultivate a bit more grace.

4.  Burden and opportunity. The threat of the Scarlet A causes women to carry a heavy and unfair burden when it comes to style. Yet amid the burden, I do see opportunity. Just as pressure forms coal into diamonds, the stylistic pressure on women is creating a lot of transformative leaders whose example we all can follow. I see women leading the way into the kind of leadership that is needed in this world. They are the ones fighting for equality by holding both the lotus and the sword. They’re the ones calling bulls*%t while reaching across the aisle in cooperation.

And yet, is there any business or ethical sense in making women dance on the head of a stylistic pin at work? I hope that the Fortune study findings will wake all of us up to the fact that gender bias still exists and that we’re all participating in it. I hope organizations will hear this study as a call to take women out from under the stylistic microscope and hold themselves to a more equitable standard of feedback. I hope all leaders, whether male or female, will continue to challenge themselves not just to “tolerate” strong women, but also to embrace and invite the full spectrum of the power that women can bring.

 

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Women’s Equality Day: 10 Questions For Organizational Self-Reflection

August 26th is Women’s Equality Day in the U.S. I like the idea of this observance – particularly compared to Women’s History Month (celebrated in March), which I kind of hate.

To me, Women’s History Month is a triumph of corporate box-checking, where organizations dust off their pictures of Susan B. Anthony and traipse out speakers (for mostly female audiences) on topics like “dress for success.” Once the boxes are checked, organizations tend to declare “Mission Accomplished” and forget about it until next March.

But consider this. If you still have to celebrate a “History Month” for a segment of your workforce, then that group probably doesn’t yet enjoy equality in your organization.

I think Women’s Equality Day offers up a useful line of inquiry. It points us not to the past, but to the present and future. It points us not to prior success, but to the distance yet to travel to reach equality. It asks us not to brush our shoulders in self-congratulation, but to ask ourselves honestly where women actually stand in our world, society, communities and organizations.

So heck yes, bring on Women’s Equality Day. And let the questions begin.

  1. Look around the table at each successive level of the company’s power structure. Who’s at this table and who’s missing? If women (or any group) are noticeably missing, then you don’t yet have equality. Period.
  2. What’s happening on compensation? Look around those same leadership team tables. Analyze the compensation of each member. See any patterns?
  3. At what levels do the main drop-offs in representation occur?
  4. What organizational policies and structures might be creating these drop-offs?
  5. What societal forces might be contributing to these declines?
  6. How would your organizational structures and policies need to change to ensure that women had equal standing in this company?
  7. What informal cultural assumptions and practices might be restricting women from the same access, influence and inclusion that their male counterparts enjoy?
  8. Whose voices tend to carry weight and sway opinion in your company? In a circle of opinion-leaders, who tends to galvanize the decisions and actions? Who has to say something before people hear and act on it?
  9. What’s really at stake? If the organization does not see itself as paying a meaningful price for inequality, then meaningful change is unlikely. What price are we paying for the lack of equality? If our women are underused or undervalued, how does that affect profitability? Our brand? Our standing in our stakeholder community? To what extent does it affect our competition for the best and brightest talent? To what extent does it affect our employee engagement and innovation?
  10. Who benefits – and how – from an unequal playing field for women (or any other group)? Don’t pussyfoot around this question; the beneficiaries of inequality will likely be among the greatest barriers to change.

Women’s Equality Day is an invitation to take courageous stock. By all means, celebrate success and progress. But ask the hard questions as well. Confront the distance between where you are and true equality for women and all workplace “minorities.” The only thing you have to lose is your comfort. And there might be so much to gain.