“Don’t Say That To Me. Don’t Do That To Me. I Hate It.”

(Photo credit: Girl Statue by Kristen Visbal)

“Don’t say that to me. Don’t do that to me. I hate it.”

That’s the phrase that author Barbara Kingsolver teaches her daughters to say when they want someone to stop what they’re doing. Nothing passive or aggressive about it; just a clear “cut it out.”

In this #MeToo, #Time’sUp moment, when women have had it with sexual misconduct and men are ducking for cover, we’re all being asked to establish new levels of respect for each other and for ourselves.

Much of what’s been written has focused on what (mostly) male abusers need to do differently. To that, I say, “Amen” and “At last.” But are women (or any targets of predation) also being called to do something new? I think so. I think there’s a call for us to confront sexual misconduct with more ‘grit.’ Like Barbara Kingsolver is teacher her daughters, women of every age can to learn how to be more direct and fierce at the boundaries.

Actor David Schwimmer and director Sigal Avin recently co-produced a series of short videos enacting scenes of women being sexually harassed. (A disclaimer here. Portraying harassment of only women, and only white- and light-skinned women at that, the series has some serious limitations. But it’s a well-done start, worth checking out.) The videos’ intent is to help men and women better recognize harassment when it happens. The hope is that  recognizing harassment – by anyone and toward anyone – will help us interrupt it.

What struck me most in the series was how often the women tried to stop harassment through demure, ‘grace-filled’ strategies: averting the eyes, smiling or laughing, ignoring or redirecting behavior, treating come-on lines as compliments, etc. The mushy responses in the videos felt so familiar to me that I felt sick to my stomach watching them.

I know why it happens… why I’ve done that stuff myself. As a harasser creeps in, the harass-ee intuitively knows that standing up for herself (/himself) could make things worse. The aggressor could become embarrassed or angry and step up the aggression. Because of that risk, many people being harassed often soften their own edges in the hope of getting the intrusion to fade.

While this is certainly one strategy, it’s pretty limited. Submissive behavior rarely stops a power play. Worse yet, smiles and laughter can signal to the harasser – who is, by definition, self-interested – a consent that does not exist. Here’s a quote, I think from Melissa Harris-Perry, that sums it up: “If you’re not having fun or do not agree, don’t smile or nod.”

When someone crosses a boundary, we don’t push him back by a blurry response. We redraw the line in bolder relief. 

Being bold does not equate to being bitchy. Boldness can just mean being rooted in your own, clear dignity and integrity. 

When I think of this kind of boldness, I think about the unshakable quality of a mountain.  Firm. Grounded. Unmovable. Without attack. Meeting a harassment situation with this kind of steadfast authority is often the most effective. 

Still, we all know there is no safe path when confronting harassment. Assertion and submission each has its risks, and the risks vary significantly, depending on your race, gender and sexual orientation. Nevertheless, after watching Schwimmer’s videos, I realized that it behooves women to expand their repertoire of responses beyond coquettish avoidance.

This is way easier said than done. But here are a few thoughts about how to bring more of that mountain-like ‘grit’ to address a harassment situation.

  1. Fine-tune your internal “ick-ometer.” There is a point in every harassment where the interaction turns from normal to creepy. And at the point of that crossing, it’s common for the harass-ee to doubt the validity of her own revulsion. “I’m probably misreading this. Maybe I’m being too sensitive. Who am I kidding – someone this high up wouldn’t be taking an interest in me.” But know this. These doubts aren’t your allies; they’re the harasser’s. As your most reliable gauge of what’s ok and not, your “ick-ometer” is your best alert system. Get familiar with the dials.
  2. Respect your instrument readings. Whether or not someone intends a transgression is irrelevant. You are feeling creeped out, so something needs to shift. Whether anyone else in the same situation would feel uncomfortable is also irrelevant. What matters is that you do. Respect that.
  3. Act early. Every move in a real or perceived harassment throws us off-balance mentally, emotionally, and physically. That’s what harassment is intended to do. So the longer the harassing behavior continues, the more you lose your own center. And the more off-balance you are, the less likely you’ll be to respond effectively. If you go into shutdown or explosion mode, the harasser will likely use that to impugn you. “Hey – you never said anything. I’m supposed to be a mind reader now?” or “Whoa, Missy, what the hell is up with you?” Suddenly, you become the problem in this story. The earlier you can stand your ground, the clearer and calmer you’ll stand it.
  4. Have a plan. Harassment is inherently disorienting, so you probably won’t have access to your best thinking when your boss’ hand sneaks onto your thigh. So it helps to prepare some retorts for a moment like this. The most effective phrases are simple ones that clearly state your position without attacking the other:
    • “Please don’t say (do) that.”
    • “Nothing is going to happen here. So let’s either stick to the agenda or postpone this meeting.”
    • “Are you aware that what you’re doing now may constitute sexual harassment?”
    • “Dude. No.”

In addition to planning what you might say, you might plan out what you would do. Move away? Call a break? Stand up? Leave the room?

The bottom line is this: before a harassment starts down the runway, identify the exits.

For many, setting respectful, yet unapologetic boundaries can be a life’s work. And after all that work, standing your ground doesn’t guarantee a good outcome. But neither does demureness.

Because so many victims of abuse and harassment have spoken out, you and I now have more room to speak. Awareness is growing daily. Productive anger is rising up and claiming its place. Truth is having an impact. More than ever before, there’s an opening to confront harassment – not just with grace, but also with some clean, clear grit.

Leading The Brokenhearted

I never imagined I’d be writing this post. But I have coached more stressed and grieving people over the past year than I have in my whole career. Challenges of every sort seem to be buffeting us, and their effects accompany us into all aspects of our lives… including into the workplace and into the hands of devoted community and organizational leaders like you. So here goes: an executive coach’s exploration of leadership in brokenhearted times. 

There is no predicting the accident, the diagnosis or the addiction; the mass shooting or the private abuse. The fire, flood, quake or hurricane. The disturbing national event or the cataclysmic organizational shake-up. We think of these as the unimaginable tragedies that happen in other places and to other people. Not here, to us.

But these past many months have reminded us that tragedy can strike right where we stand. The unthinkable happens, and the affected take a bit of time out to register the blow. But then – grieving, disoriented or even traumatized – they show back up to work. They may be walking back into your workplace, to your team. And there you are,  leading people in their most raw and human moments, when their well-pressed suits can’t button up their sorrow. If the tragedy has hit your whole community or workplace, you may even have to lead the brokenhearted while your own heart is in shreds.

If this happens to you, it will be a crucible in your journey as a leader, calling upon you in ways you can’t imagine. Although you can’t predict these moments, you can prepare for them: personally, relationally and structurally.

Preparing Personally 

Who you are is how you lead – and that is never so true as when the chips are down. Your own experience with tragedy will naturally shape how you manage others in heartbreaking times. So it can be helpful to review your own history with trauma, grief and loss, and take clear-eyed stock of their imprint on you as a person and as a leader. The “grit and grace” lens is one simple way to self-reflect.

Grit is a crucial leadership trait in difficult times. It helps you focus on the work at hand, drive to make progress and provide others with a sense of stability and predictability. To what extent does grit show up in you during tough times, and how does it manifest? How has that grit served you or others in tough times?

As useful as grit is, it’s also possible to bring so much of it that others experience you as uncaring or unapproachable. For example, has your own history trained you to ignore or power through your own emotions? Is there any chance that you expect (or hope) that others will do the same? Does vulnerability make you squeamish or judgmental? Becoming more at home with challenging emotions (your own and others’) can help you prepare to be more open-hearted when others are facing difficult times.

Grace. Perhaps your response to tragedy tends toward grace, which is a key aspect of the ‘consoler in chief’ role. Grace offers compassion and comfort to those in pain. But too much grace can get you in over your head. You can become so identified with others’ suffering that you lose your objectivity and find yourself crossing the line from leader to rescuer or enabler. You can be so flexible as to create havoc on the rest of the team and on productivity. So being too helpful can put you, the employee and the company at risk. If you tend to be grace-full to a fault, you might want to set up some guardrails that prevent you from going overboard on overhelping.

The optimal stance, in tragedy as in most things, is a blend of grit and grace, which allows you to be appropriately sensitive without losing your own footing. A shining example of blended leadership in recent times is Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Here’s a clip of Cruz, where her deep care and steely resolve are seamlessly woven together.

Turning grit & grace toward yourself. It’s hard to lead well when the well is empty. In times of tragedy or challenge, it’s crucial to attend to yourself. Most leaders would tell you that self-care is absolutely necessary, yet few actually put that into practice. They treat it as optional: something they’ll get around to when they have the time. But if you are leading the brokenhearted, self-care isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a necessity that requires both resolve and self-compassion. Get sleep. Exercise and eat well. Go easy on the alcohol. Do things that nourish you. Draw on your support system; consider getting counseling for yourself. Structure your time, adjust your expectations and renegotiate your commitments to align with the realities of life in a time of upheaval.

Preparing Relationally 

You can’t know in advance what people will need when tragedy falls.  But you can prepare by knowing what kinds of conversations you’ll need to have when it does.

If you’re leading someone(s) going through difficulty, don’t make any assumptions about what support he/she/they need from you. Don’t assume that what you would want is what they want. Even if you know them well, don’t assume that you know the brokenhearted them.  Tragedy changes us and reveals aspects of us that we may not know or show under normal circumstances.

How do you know what support to give someone? Ask them. Does he need time off, or does being in the office help? How does she want you to answer other people’s questions about what’s going on? What can you share, with whom? What needs to be kept private? Do they want you to check in with them, or would they prefer that you not ask how they’re doing unless they bring it up?

Sometimes people can’t articulate what they need, but they know what won’t work. So if they don’t know what support to ask for, you can ask them what you could do that would be counterproductive or unhelpful for them. A lot of clarity and wisdom can surface there.

Even as you accommodate (as possible) someone who’s reeling, you still have to make sure that the work gets done. This is delicate terrain, where you need to keep grit and grace in balance. The best way I know to navigate this is to explicitly acknowledge the challenges of working while recovering, and make explicit plans and agreements. Talk with the brokenhearted person, and then the team, about how the work’s going to get done while someone is either physically out of the office or is present, but less mentally/emotionally available.

Here’s an example from my own experience. My father died when I was 30; my mother had died several years earlier. That second loss really threw me, and my performance was very uneven while I grappled with it. I’d get totally overwhelmed, out of nowhere. My boss noticed this new unpredictability and sat down with me to create a strategy.  We moved one of my deadlines back by a few weeks, and moved one of my projects to a teammate. We agreed that I would work in the office as much as I could, but that I could leave the office on short notice if I felt overwhelmed. Sometimes just knowing I had the space to leave enabled me to stay. Sometimes, I needed to step away for an afternoon or a day. So I briefed a co-worker on my deliverables and kept him in the loop so that he could step in at any time if needed.

It wasn’t easy, but it worked. My boss’ explicit collaboration with me and engagement with other team members gave me the room to recover without derailing the team’s ability to deliver.

Preparing Structurally 

While you may not have given these worst-case scenarios much thought, your organization probably has. Most organizations have created structures to help you support staff through difficult times. Rather than waiting till a tragedy hits to know what these structures and resources are, you can meet periodically with your HR professionals on the following questions:

  • What actions are within and beyond the scope of your role as a leader, when responding to employees going through challenging times?
  • What are the resources available through the organization’s Employee Assistance Program? How does an employee go about engaging EAP services?
  • What is the manager’s responsibility and process for notifying company officials if an employee appears to be a danger to self or others?
  • What internal programs (such as leave-sharing, disaster relocation funds) has the company established? How do they work?

Leading the brokenhearted is perhaps the most delicate, difficult and important work you will ever do. It will stretch your character, heart and competence in ways that everyday leadership won’t. Though we like to think that tragedy won’t happen to us or “ours,” the truth is that it can land at your feet in an instant.  And while you’ll never be ready, you can prepare.

 

 

Uber Reveals the Perils of Grit Gone Wild

Set bold goals. Drive for results. Accelerate growth. Foster competition. Push people to excel.

This is the ‘grit’ side of business success, and it’s become a favored playbook in the start-up world. This formula has produced dizzying growth and investor bonanzas for countless new companies. So what’s not to love about a strategy like this? Ask Uber’s investors and its CEO, Travis Kalanick.

Under Kalanick’s leadership, Uber’s strategy and corporate culture were overwhelmingly grit-centric:  which is to say that Uber has faltered – seriously and predictably – because of the absence of the grace aspect of the enterprise. What was missing in Kalanick’s Uber? Fairness; compassion; care for employees’ welfare; collaboration. You know – that touchy-feely stuff that, in the right amount, actually makes organizations sing.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with bodacious goals and an aggressive stance to productivity. But, if left to its own devices, grit’s aggressive ambition will ultimately bring a company down. Like a tall tree with shallow roots, like a field farmed year after year, like an engine run too hot for too long, a leader who leans on the grit and ignores the grace has followed a recipe for failure.

According to a recent New York Times article, Uber’s obsession with results at all costs – unmediated by attention to workplace equality, safety, civility and due process – has fostered some very unhealthy dynamics:

  • a hyper-competitive atmosphere which pits employees against each other and against management
  • inappropriate workplace conduct among high-performers has gone unchecked, condoned and even modeled from the top
  • incidents of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination have continued to mount

As a result, Uber’s “bro” culture became a broken culture. Customers, employees and investors are in revolt and the company is in chaos.

  • The company’s brand and profits have taken a huge hit; Kalanick’s been forced to step aside.
  • Uber’s valuation has dropped from $68B to $50B, while its customers flock to competitor, Lyft.
  • Uber is mired in lawsuits brought by employees and competitors.
  • The company will need to devote untold resources and time to rehabilitate its culture, management practices and brand.

Our experience tell us, and research confirms, that the leaders who are effective over the long term are the ones who blend grit and grace. Maybe not in perfect halves, but at least in dynamic combination. Their actions promote productivity as well as harmony, and foster competition and collaboration in healthy measure. Why? Because the blend is what gets the best results over time.

The Uber story, like the 2009 real estate crisis and Enron before that, was predictable and avoidable, because grit alone (like grace alone) can’t deliver sustainable success. So if you’re a grit-leaning leader who wants to shoot the moon without the crash-and-burn, go get your grace on.

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Would It Kill You To Say “Thank You?”

It’s coming up on Thanksgiving.  So naturally, I’m thinking about gratitude as a leadership competency.  I’m thinking specifically about the grit-based leaders I know who hate saying thank you – like it violates some deeply-held value. Few people actually come out and admit that they resist thanks-giving.  Their hesitance usually sounds more like this: “Why should I thank someone who’s just doing the job I’m paying them to do?” or “Hey – nobody coddled me; I don’t see why I should coddle anyone else,” or “I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to get the job done.”

Awesome.  Can I come work for you?

Giving thanks at work isn’t about etiquette, it’s about effectiveness. Purely and simply, you should thank people because it’s one of the most sure-fire ways to get them to replicate behavior you want to see more of.

Most women who fall on the “grit” side of the equation tend to be logical, objective, fair and tough-minded. Often, their way of contributing to quality is to point out what’s wrong or missing.  They’re not trying to tear things down – they’re actually trying to build them up by pointing out what can be better.   But it can be demoralizing to be on the receiving end of that, to keep hearing only the ways in which one has fallen short of the mark.   Not only is that a downer for others, but it’s also risky for you.  By staying silent about all the things that went right on this latest project, you are leaving it COMPLETELY TO CHANCE whether those things will be repeated next time.  No feedback, no learning.

The best praise is the most specific. “Good job” really doesn’t tell me much. But how about something like… “Good job on that briefing.  It was well organized, stayed within the time limits, and concentrated only on the really important points.  Your delivery was relaxed but well-paced, and you answered all the questions directly.”  Not wimpy or coddling.  Informative.  And I know what to aim for next time.

The great thing about being on the ‘grit’ side is that it takes very little positive feedback to make a huge impact. Coming from you, praise means so much. So give it a try between now and the end of the year.  Try pointing out some things that you like – even if it’s what someone’s already being paid to do.  I guess you could be the first person ever to die from giving praise.  But just maybe, you’ll help people better understand what you’re looking for.   Knowing that, they’ll be more likely to do it again.   And maybe they’ll even be more motivated to try.

Happy Thanksgiving!

“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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Grit Gone Wild – How to Torpedo Your Brand In One Memo or Less

A client said to me once, “Really, Leslie, what does grace have to do with leadership? Does the heart really matter?” My answer is absolutely ‘yes,’ and Microsoft CEO Stephen Elop has given us a master class in why.

A couple of weeks ago, Elop sent out an all-company memo announcing layoffs at Microsoft. If you haven’t seen it yet, read it here. It’s spectacular – and not in a good way. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/07/microsoft-lays-off-thousands-with-bad-memo.html

Elop began the memo by rambling on about business conditions and product line strategy, using passive voice corporate-speak. After eleven excruciating paragraphs, he finally got to the punchline: Microsoft will be laying off about 10% of its people over the next year. Elop took all of one sentence to address the human side: “These decisions are difficult for the team, and we plan to support departing team members with severance benefits.” What a peach.

I get it. Tough times require tough choices. But the mistake that Elop and so many other executives make is to become hyper-rational in implementing those choices.  They hide behind numbers, market share and productivity stats while taking actions that alter people’s very human lives. Yes, the decision will hurt.  But when leaders cut themselves off  from the humanity of the situation, they cause additional injury to those affected, to those who remain, to the culture and to…themselves.

Elop provides all leaders with a cautionary tale of what can happen when executives implement tough decisions with gritty objectivity alone.

1.  His own brand plummeted. The firings won’t hurt Elop’s reputation nearly as much as the robotic way in which he communicated his decision. I would suspect that he’s lost significant leadership credibility: not only within the walls of Microsoft, but also among the worldwide business community (thanks to social media). That memo makes him and his entire team of advisors look out of touch and utterly tone deaf.

2.  He undermined his own corporate strategy. Here is the first phrase of Microsoft’s Vision statement (from its website): “Global diversity and inclusion is an integral and inherent part of our culture, fueling our business growth while allowing us to attract, develop, and retain this best talent.” Trust me, Mr. Elop. If I’m the best and brightest, why would I want to work for a company that handles a firing that way?

3.  He’s given the ‘survivors’ more pain to process. Layoffs are always traumatic. But announcing a layoff the way Mr. Elop did adds insensitivity to injury. More pain means a longer recovery.

What’s important to remember is that while Elop’s actions were an epic example of what not to do, he’s by no means alone. I’ve seen many executives abandon their company’s core values when times get tough. I’ve seen them hide behind numbers when talking to people whose lives they’ve just upended. I’ve seen them take the stance that “This is just business,” when it’s a whole lot more than that.  What they don’t realize is this: extricating themselves from the humanity of a difficult business decision doesn’t only affect their people. It affects their own reputation and credibility as leaders. So does the heart matter? Heck yes.

What about you?

  1. When have you skirted away from the human side of a difficult decision?
  2. What’s your ‘way’ of doing that?
  3. What are you trying to avoid or protect by doing that?
  4. What might the costs have been – to individual employees, to the health of the organization, and to your own credibility as a leader?
  5. What would you have to do differently in order to carry out a difficult decision in a way that acknowledges the humanity of the people affected?

 

 

 

It’s (still) Not Easy Being ‘Grit’

Earlier this year, my partner and I interviewed 28 women leaders about their styles of influence and how those styles work – or don’t – in organizational life. (You can request a copy of our findings in the right hand column.) One of the primary questions we wanted to answer was whether organizations relate differently to women leaders, based on their ‘grit’ or ‘grace’ style.

Our finding? Do they ever.

50% of our sample identified their influence style as predominantly ‘grace’-based, while 50% identified their stylistic preference as predominantly ‘grit’-based. Two of the questions we asked were:

“Have you ever received feedback that your style was either ‘too hard’ or ‘too soft?’ and
“If so, how was that actually communicated to you?”

We found that grit-based leaders catch a lot more flak for their style than their grace-based counterparts – even though both styles, when out of balance, can create equal amounts of organizational havoc.

Collectively, the grace-based leaders we interviewed mentioned only 3 criticisms that had been levied against them:

  • too nice
  • too slow
  • too inclusive

This feedback is probably too vague to be helpful. But while it’s not very effective input, at least it’s not cruel.

On the other hand, the same number of ‘grit’ interviewees reported 21 different criticisms. Not only were the criticisms more plentiful, but the language used was also far more specific and emotionally laden:

  • impatient
  • demonstrating a lack of respect
  • not being giving enough
  • not asking for help
  • not caring
  • working people to death
  • defensive
  • rigid
  • not inclusive enough
  • set expectations that were too high
  • high maintenance
  • too hard
  • too serious
  • too frank and direct
  • bitch
  • pushy and insensitive
  • too detail oriented
  • need to ‘step back’
  • need to get my priorities straight
  • angry black woman
  • arrogant

Um, wow.

The strength of this language may, in part, reflect the intense impact that a grit-gone-growl leader can have to his or her environment. Yet, we also know that many organizations continue to be ‘allergic’ to assertive behavior in women, the same behavior generally applauded in men. What shocked us, though, was the harsh and harmful way in which this organizational allergy gets expressed. We think this list is a wake-up call for all managers to give more objective, balanced and helpful feedback to grit-based women.

In the meantime, if you’re a woman with a fast-paced, assertive style, you know this: it’s (still) not easy being grit.

What about you?

If you are a grit-based leader, have you experienced this kind of feedback?

What do you make of it?

What impact do those kinds of messages have…

…on how you feel about yourself?
…on how you feel about leading in your organization?
…on how you navigate decisions”
…on how/when to express your strength?
What advice do you have for other grit-based leaders who receive feedback like this?

And if you MANAGE a woman with a grit-based style… How do you give stylistic feedback that’s accurate, objective and useful? How do you keep feedback freer of your own biases, discomforts and assumptions?

 

Michelle Obama to Ellen Sturtz: Assertive or Aggressive?

From the Huffington Post today:

“President Barack Obama may have a problem with confrontation, but First Lady Michelle Obama certainly does not. Ellen Sturtz, 56, a lesbian activist protesting President Obama’s delay in signing an anti-discrimination executive order, paid $500…at a private Democratic Party fundraiser in Washington, D.C. Ellen Sturtz claims in an interview with The Huffington Post, that she didn’t plan on interrupting First Lady Michelle Obama, but her fundraiser speech triggered her emotions and she couldn’t hold it in:

“I want to talk about the children,” Sturtz said. “I want to talk about the LGBT young people who are … being told, directly and indirectly, that they’re second-class citizens. I’m tired of it. They’re suffering. … We’ve been asking the president to sign that ENDA executive order for five years. How much longer do we need to wait?”

Refusing to be intimidated, the First Lady let her know how they do it on the Southside of Chicago and shut her down. The Washington Post reports:

“One of the things that I don’t do well is this,” Mrs. Obama said to applause from most of the guests, according to a White House transcript. “Do you understand?” A pool report from a reporter in the room said Mrs. Obama “left the lectern and moved over to the protester.” The pool report quoted Mrs. Obama as saying: “Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.” The audience responded by asking Obama to remain, according to the pool report, which quoted a woman nearby telling Sturtz, “You need to go.”

Sturtz was escorted out of the room. She said in an interview later she was stunned by Mrs. Obama’s response. “She came right down in my face,” Sturtz said. “I was taken aback.”

This presents an interesting question. Will people say that Michelle Obama was assertive or aggressive in her handling of the situation? Because for a woman as powerful and strong as Michelle Obama, that question is bound to arise. And as all women in leadership roles know, this is complex, tricky and loaded territory. Here is how I’ve been making sense of that, spurred by this recent Huff Post story.

1. Context. The first question is, “Did Mrs. Obama do the right thing?” There is a time and place to challenge authority, but this was not it. By explicit agreement, this was Michelle Obama’s stage. Her role at the fundraiser was to deliver a speech, not to engage in dialogue. I believe it was also implicitly her stage. As First Lady, she is due the highest possible level of civility and deference. Both formally and informally, this context granted Michelle Obama the right to speak without interruption. Thus, I believe that Ms. Sturtz was out of order and that Mrs. Obama was justified in asserting her right to the floor.

The second question becomes, “Did Mrs. Obama act skillfully?” And that’s where the second aspect of context comes in: filters. Like it or not, we see each other through a multitude of lenses, be they gender, age, race, sexual orientation, economics, education, you name it. These filters sharply shape our interpretation of each other’s behavior. Look at how The Washington Post described Mrs. Obama’s actions: “Refusing to be intimidated, the First Lady let her [Ms. Sturtz] know how they do it on the South Side of Chicago, and shut her down.” Wow – really? I find this a thuggish way to characterize the behavior of a First Lady who is known for her graciousness, class, elite education and impressive accomplishments.

Put a different filter on the situation. Let’s say it was First Lady Barbara Bush, whom I imagine would have also handled that situation directly. Dollars to donuts, I’ll bet that the language used to describe the same behavior coming from Mrs. Bush would be something like “forthright” or “charmingly feisty.” Now put a white male president’s face on the scenario, and you’d likely have a man who was ‘firmly in command of the situation.”

This happens every day in every work place. I’ve already gotten comments to this blog like “Welcome to my world, Michelle,” and “This happens to me every day and I’m so frustrated.” If you don’t believe that this is still true, ask any woman leader who has gotten feedback for being aggressive. She’ll tell you that her actions were mild compared to her male colleagues, but that it was she, not they, called out for inappropriate behavior.

2. Definitions. Whether we label behavior as ‘assertive’ or ‘aggressive’ also depends on how we define those very words. Joe Weston, author of Respectful Confrontation, offers useful guidance. He defines ‘assertiveness’ as “any behavior, action, remark, gesture, or facial expression that impacts another with the goal to empower, and/or is received by the other in a positive way.” On the other hand, he defines ‘aggression’ as “any behavior, action, remark, gesture or facial expression that impacts another with the goal to disempower, and/or is received by the other in a harmful, threatening way.”

In other words, whether an act is assertive or aggressive depends on three very different ingredients: the sender’s objective behavior, the sender’s (invisible) goal or intent, and the receiver’s subjective experience. I imagine each of us has our own opinion about whether Mrs. Obama’s actions were assertive or aggressive. But based on the definitions offered by Joe Weston, the only valid perspectives on this are Mrs. Obama’s and Ms. Sturtz’. And I would not be surprised if their perspectives differed from each other.

3. Words and music. There are two components of any interaction: the tangible, behavioral aspects of the communication (which I call the ‘words’) and the spirit in and from which that behavior arises (which I call the ‘music’). There’s often a miscue when the two are out of sync. For example, if you’re coming from a spirit of judgment or hurt, even the most innocent words can come across as an attack. Conversely, when coming with an open heart and mind, it is possible to deliver even the most confrontative message in a skillful, supportive and productive way. Those of us reading the account of last night’s fundraiser have no window into the music behind either Ms. Sturtz’ or Mrs. Obama’s words. So we can’t judge the full impact of that exchange. But there will be ample opportunity for both women to reflect and decide if their words and music lined up with their intent.

—————-

When I look at Mrs. Obama’s actions, I see someone who handled a very dicey situation in a strong and assertive way. I don’t know how this particular incident will play out in the media; I hope that the ‘aggressiveness’ label avoids Mrs. Obama altogether. But I share these reflections because the incident reminds me that the line between “assertiveness” and “aggressiveness” continues to hound and confound so many of the women leaders that I know and work with. We are often so quick to levy the “aggressive” label (almost always negatively) against powerful women, and behave as if that characterization were objectively true. But the distinction between self-respecting assertiveness and attacking ‘bitchiness’ is anything but clear and face-valid. The way we view a woman’s strength is still driven as much by our inner and outer contexts as by her own behavior.

What about you?

Think of a communication that was questionable in terms of where the actors fell on the assertiveness – aggression continuum.

When you look at that interaction through these three criteria (context, definitions and words/music), what do you see?
How does it shift your original assessment of the exchange and of the various actors’ behavior in it?
What was the role of context in defining how you and others interpreted and/or dealt with the behavior?
What filters were likely at play in how people (including you) viewed it?
If you could rewrite the script, what would you change to make the interaction more effective?
Have you ever engaged in behavior where your words were skillful, but your music had an aggressive undertone? Can you see how this affected the communication?

Mountain or Spear? The difference between assertiveness and aggression

“The minute I express my opinion clearly, I get labeled as aggressive.”  This may be the most recurrent refrain I hear from the women leaders I coach.  They report that if they hold back or are soft-spoken, they get run over in conversations.  Yet if they come forward with strength, they get tattooed with what I call the “Scarlet B:” the reputation as a bitch (excuse the French).

There’s no doubt that organizations tolerate more forcefulness from men than from women, so women often have to operate in a much narrower stylistic swath.  At the same time, something has nagged at me about these clients’  stories.  In each of their organizations, I can name other women leaders who are successful and influential who have escaped the “aggressive” label.  And many of the women that I’ve coached do, indeed, have quite a sharp edge.  So while I fully acknowledge that organizations are often intolerant of strength in women, I don’t believe that it’s impossible for a woman to be both strong and avoid the Scarlet B tattoo.

The issue is not whether you’re coming across with strength – it’s rather the kind of strength you’re coming across with. There is an important distinction between assertiveness and aggression.  The word “assertive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to join,”  while “aggressive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to attack.”  Assertion stands its ground, like a mountain or tree.  It has a full and present quality that is based on your intention to make real contact with yourself and others.  Aggressiveness, on the other hand, has a forward-leaning, ‘coming at’ quality, and often reflects a loss of interrelatedness.  In women, there can be a sharpness or shrillness to the voice that often belies an underlying energy of anger, frustration, powerlessness or fear.  If left unmanaged or ungrounded, those emotions can give our communication a spear-like quality.

Unfortunately, because organizations tolerate more spears from men than from women, women need to take extra care that their communications are balanced and effective.  The bad news is that women carry an extra burden to be skillful in their communication.  But the good news is that that forces us into a style that research has proven to be most effective for leaders in general, regardless of gender.

What about you?

Recall an interaction in which someone told you that you came across as aggressive or “too strong.”   What were the circumstances surrounding that interaction?

What message were you trying to get across?  What qualities did your communication have?  (If you were watching yourself on videotape in that interaction, what do you think you would have observed about yourself?)

Now recall the emotions you were feeling in that interaction.  What were they?  Defensive, scared, angry…?  Were you aware of them at the time?  How did those emotions shape what you said and how you said it? Were there spear-like qualities to it?

Where was your attention when you were speaking?  Was it more on connecting to yourself and the other person?  Or was it more on getting your point across or being heard?

Now imagine yourself as a mountain, or as some other image that is both solid in itself and open to its surroundings.   How would that mountain (or other image that works for you) communicate that same message you were trying to convey?

What’s different about how the mountain would express itself from how you actually communicated in the situation?

What’s your sense of how others would perceive the two messages with respect to assertiveness vs. aggression?

What new awareness or understanding do you have as a result of this exercise?  What actions might you take as a result of these insights?

 

 

“Self-promotion smells”

A very dignified woman once said to me, “Self-promotion smells.”  This is how many people, especially women, feel about self-promotion at work. Many believe that their competence should speak for itself, and that broadcasting how terrific they are seems a bit…well…oily.

But they feel caught.  They know that they need to gain visibility in order to succeed, yet they don’t want to become “that person” who shamelessly toots her own horn.  When facing that choice, many women feel more comfortable burying their accomplishments than bragging about them.

In part, our resistance to talking about our success stems from how we think about it. As long as we look at it as ‘bragging,’ we’ll naturally avoid it.

So let’s look at it differently.

Sharing your success is not an act of  self-promotion; it’s a contribution. Your accomplishment strengthens the organization, your team and your management. Let us count the ways…

  1. Your success holds important information about what works well.  Your win has the potential to make the organization smarter.
  2. Success boosts morale.  These days, most organizations can use all the good news they can get.  Why keep your good news to yourself?
  3. It strengthens your team.  Your wins reflect as well on your team as their wins reflect on you.
  4. Oh, and by the way, it helps you.  It increases your impact and increases the odds that you’ll get the recognition you have earned.

If you’re like many women leaders, you’re  SO DARN GOOD at copping to your shortcomings. Why be less transparent about your successes? As far as I can tell, that doesn’t benefit anyone.