Do Women In Your Organization Experience Bias?

The problem with talking about sexism at work is that so few men are sexist anymore. Few, if any, of the hundreds of male executives I’ve coached show any signs of the belief that women are less capable, qualified or worthy than men. So why are women’s claims of gender-bias still rampant?

One reason is that institutions (and the cultures that grew up within them) still carry the DNA of their founders and architects. Most organizations were originally built by and for men, because that’s who worked there. It’s natural and rational that the structures, policies and the ‘way we do things’ would favor the people for and by whom they were designed. But as the workplace has become more and more diverse, organizational systems and cultures have stayed largely unchanged. This has created (intentionally or not) a state of privilege  for men: they’ve retained the luxury of working within a construct that was created with them and their interests in mind. So when ‘different others’ say that they experience life in X organization as inhospitable, men often don’t get it. It’s simply not a part of their own experience.

At the individual level, I think men’s hearts have changed and are changing. But the systems they built have been slow to evolve. It takes a strong intention and determined will to start chipping away at the many subtle ways that organizational life preferences one group over another. Why is it so hard? Because it’s difficult to see these powerful intangibles of organization life – especially if they conform to your shape. And it’s painful to change them – especially if they work in your favor.

This month’s Harvard Business Review has a great article on gender bias in the tech industry (“Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem” http://ow.ly/Cl4b4). It’s full of advice on how organizations – tech and otherwise – can interrupt systemic bias.

The first step? Determine whether gender bias is happening.

Women are the most credible experts about the extent of gender bias in your organization. The Harvard Business Review article lays out four patterns of gender bias. So consider asking the women at work whether they experience any or all of these patterns:

1. “Prove it again.” This is the dance by which women are required to prove and re-prove their competence far more often than their male counterparts, in order to be seen in an equal light. Of the 127 women that the authors interviewed, about 2/3 had experienced this pattern.

2. “Tightrope.” This is the stylistic double-bind that a full 75% of the women in the study reported experiencing. In order to be seen as contenders for high level jobs, women must demonstrate ambition and assertiveness. They can’t be “too soft.” Yet when they do come forward with an assertive style, they risk being labeled as ‘aggressive,’ ‘abrasive’ or ‘bitchy:” labels which can stop a woman’s career in its tracks. The tightrope can have very tangible consequences, such as in salary negotiations, where women are simultaneously encouraged to advocate for themselves and disapproved of for doing so.

3. “Maternal wall.” In one study, a hiring panel considered the resumes of two equally qualified candidates, one of whom was a mother. The study found that the woman was “79% less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards.” The researchers reported that 59% of the women they interviews reported hitting this maternal wall.

4. “Tug of war.” Research indicates that woman who have experienced gender bias are more likely to distance themselves from other women. They’re less apt to reach out to other women, offer mentoring or support, or even align with them. If you’re an ‘untouchable’ trying to make it in the organization, then the last people you want to be associated with are other untouchables. The result? Women turn against each other. 45% of the women interviewed reported experiencing this.

This article is a goldmine of guidance for examining and reducing gender bias at work. It directs us away from the guilt- and blame ridden conversation about individual attitudes and points us more productively to the systemic level, which is where I believe the bulk of bias still resides.

When Depression Enters The Workplace: What’s A Leader To Do?

For exactly one month now, Robin Williams’ suicide has kicked off a worldwide exploration of the treacherous terrain of depression. While we continue to mourn the passing of a comic genius and a beautiful human being, many of us have also been taking a more intimate look at how depression affects us and those we know. I’ve read so many useful articles in the media. But I haven’t seen anything on the intersection of depression and the workplace – and more specifically, on the challenges that managers face when someone on their team is depressed. So I thought I’d take that on – from a very personal angle.

Anyone who knows me knows that I can bitch and moan with the best of them, but that I am basically a sunny person. I love to laugh and to make others laugh. My friends can count on me to giggle at even their bad jokes and to delight in the smallest of things. And yet, depression runs through my family tree and my personal experience. People don’t realize that true happiness and depression can coexist in a person. Robin Williams is proof of this. So am I. Maybe, so are you.

Depression is like being locked in a soundproof booth with heavy, mean-spirited air. Intellectually, you know that the birds are singing, that you are loved, and that the world is every bit as beautiful as it is botched. But in the soundproof booth, you can’t feel the good stuff. The only thing you can feel is the isolation of the booth and the foul smell of the air in there. No amount of effort or willpower can break you out so that the sunlight can actually reach your skin.

Many people suffering from depression are walking into the workplace… your workplace. And the minute they do, they present a very difficult challenge to their bosses and colleagues. I’ve been through two significant depressions in my life. The first one came in my early 30’s, and I was blessed to have had a manager back then who dealt spectacularly well with me and the challenges that my depression handed to him as a manager. His name was David.

I’d like to share with you some of the many things he did right, in case you ever find yourself in his position.

  • From the beginning, David had established himself as someone with whom I felt safe to share my struggles. Yes, he held us to high standards of performance, but he also demonstrated, time and again, his respect and care for us as people. He always affirmed that our humanity and our performance were inextricably linked. So as scared as I was to reveal my depression to him, I trusted that he would receive it compassionately. And he did.
  • The first thing he said was, “You are addressing this in the most skillful and responsible way.” In that powerful sentence, he communicated that my difficulty did not freak him out. He also managed to affirm a way in which I was still competent, which is easy to lose sight of when you’re depressed.
  • Then he inquired about my external support system. Was I getting help? Was I in immediate danger? Did I have family or friends to lean on? He was appropriately trying to determine whether or not I had the support I needed and whether or not he needed to connect me to the company’s counseling resources.
  • Next, he inquired about my internal support system. Had I experienced this before? If so, what had I learned about the things that helped and didn’t? What aspects of that experience would I be able to draw on now?
  • David helped me to stay engaged at work to the degree possible. Frankly, it would have been easier for him to just tell me to take a leave of absence and come back when I was feeling better. But he took the risk to let me stay involved at work by scaling back my responsibilities and accommodating my more uneven ability to perform. Staying even minimally engaged in our work kept me in the mix of life and in touch with my strengths. That’s not necessarily helpful for everyone, but it was key for me.
  • He protected my need for privacy. Not only does depression feel terrible, but it also feels shameful. David did everything possible to avoid adding to that shame. We decided together how he would communicate my periods of absence to the staff, so that I was comfortable about the narrative. And he stuck to the script, whether addressing staff, peers or senior management.

Here’s what David did NOT do, that also helped a great deal:

  • He did not shut down or withdraw from me. We stayed productively and appropriately connected.
  • He did not take my depression on as his problem to solve. He knew where the boundaries of his managerial role were and never crossed them.
  • He never discounted my experience. He didn’t tell me to “snap out of it” or to “buck up.” Nor did he try to convince me why I shouldn’t feel bad.
  • He did not unload his own experience on me. The last thing I needed was someone else’s pain, disguised as empathy, piped into my soundproof booth.

David did not rescue me. That was not his job and he knew it. But at a time when even the simplest tasks seemed daunting to me, he absolutely eased my way. For those of you managing someone who experiences depression, I hope you will benefit from David’s spot-on leadership. His compassion never wavered, and yet he continued to expect and encourage me to produce to the fullest extent that I could. Grit and grace in powerful combination.

 

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.

He Leads “Like a Girl”

Thanks to Mo’ne Davis, a thirteen-year old soft ball player with a 70 MPH fastball, it’s a little harder to use “throws like a girl” as an insult.

I’m looking forward to the day when “like a girl” is no longer a criticism in any domain of life. Including and especially leadership.

Several years ago, I was teaching a leadership course to a group of managers within an organization. The organization had just come through a crisis: one of those defining moments in a company’s history when a leader stepped up admirably in a difficult time. What made this leader’s response so skillful was his use of what I would now call ‘grace.’ He led with humility, empathy, kindness, and personal accountability. Despite the chaos, he did not bring in the corporate version of armored tanks and military-grade weapons.

The way he led his organization through turmoil was a galvanizing moment for the organization and a whopper of a teachable moment that I could use in the course for illustration.

In a moment of naiveté, I said to the participants, “This leader’s actions are a testament to the power of feminine leadership.” Before I could expand, the room erupted into laughter. And I mean the belly kind. It was like the notion of a man leading through the feminine was hilarious. Embarrassing. Absurd.

The laughter hit me hard. I don’t even know the name of the emotion I felt, but it was unpleasant and overwhelming. When the uproar subsided, all I could do was to ask, in all sincerity, why the term ‘feminine leadership’ was laughable.

At that moment, I discovered first-hand that we are still not equipped for a conversation about masculine and feminine, because of  how deeply our culture still  discounts the latter. I discovered that acknowledging the feminine aspect of a man’s leadership was tantamount to calling him a woman. Which I wasn’t. But which, if I had been, was considered an insult to him.

When I look at Mo’ne Davis, I see that “throwing like a girl” looks pretty amazing. And yet I realize that until throwing, running, thinking or leading in any way ‘like a girl’ is as deep a compliment as doing it ‘like a guy,’ we still have a very long road ahead.

 

 

Do You Suffer From “Sorry-itis?”

Early one morning, Peg popped her head into her boss’ office and said, “Sorry, Bill. Do you have a minute?” In a late-morning project meeting, she said, “I’m sorry, but can I ask a question?” Riding the elevator to go out for lunch, Peg was jostled by another rider. “Sorry,” she said reflexively.  And on the last call of the day, something the other person said was garbled. To prompt the speaker to repeat himself, she said… you guessed it… “Sorry?”

Women rightly chafe against being treated as “less than” in the workplace. But we actually participate in that treatment through our own “sorry-itis” – a condition affecting mostly women, in which we apologize to others for absolutely nothing.

Like you, I respect leaders who admit to their mistakes and who own up to the consequences. But sorry-itis is a whole different thing.  In all four examples above, Peg committed no transgression. Essentially, she manufactured needless blame and stuck it to own forehead.  Though each of her “sorries” was no big deal, together, they formed a speech pattern that communicated that Peg is a walking mistake. Every unwarranted “sorry” taught others to devalue her.

When Peg became aware of the extent and impact of her sorry-itis, she wanted to heal it. But she was afraid that she might start sounding like a jerk. So what were her alternatives in the four situations?

  • Popping her head into Bill’s office, she could merely say, “Excuse me, Bill. We don’t have an appointment right now, but do you have a few minutes to go over X?” And if Bill says, no, she can counter with “No problem. What would be a better time?”
  • She had every right to ask a question in a meeting. A more self-respectful way to do it might have been “Before we move on, I’d like to get more clarification on Y.”
  • In the elevator… Just zip it, Peg. The jostler owes the apology here, not the jostle-ee.
  • If she didn’t understand or hear something, she could have simply said “Would you say that again?”

What about you?

For the next week, keep a running log of the situations where you said “I’m sorry.”

At the end of the week, review the log.  What percentage of the time were your “sorries” the warranted acknowledgment of harm or injury?  What percentage of your “sorries” were due to sorry-itis?

When your sorries were unwarranted, what message do you think they sent to others:
– about how you regard yourself?
– about how others should regard you?

If you had one of those situations to do over again, how could you communicate in a way that was both graceful and self-respectful?

‘Uninstalling’ Subtle Sexism

The public discourse surrounding New York Times’ editor Jill Abramson’s recent firing has been fascinating to watch. Though we still don’t know exactly what happened and why, one of the prevailing theories is that Abramson was fired partly because of her “brusque” manner and “pushy” approach to confronting top management about compensation.

Abramson’s firing has reignited the conversation about gender bias in the workplace. But I’ve been surprised to see how many articles assert that we have some sort of new problem in our organizations: articles entitled, “The new war on women” and “The new forms of subtle bias”. But I don’t think that Jill Abramson shows us a new problem – simply that the quest for equality needs to continue in ever more subtle and conscious ways.

The process of eliminating sexism (or any other “ism”) at work is kind of like the process of uninstalling a software program from your computer. Even though you’ve uninstalled the main program, countless bits of code remain in the computer’s memory. So it is with organizations. Even though most workplaces have eradicated overtly sexist policies, the organizations still carry an enormous amount of biased “code” in their corporate cultures, behavioral expectations and application of corporate policy. These remnants of bias are difficult to detect if you are a member of the dominant culture that wrote the code in the first place. But they are eminently palpable to those who were not yet at the table when the code was written.

Here are a couple of examples of how sexist organizational code may have played out for Abramson:

  • Jill Abramson had the reputation of being “brusque.” Would we be criticizing a man for this same behavior – especially in an industry (journalism) which rewards driven and competitive people? Assuming that Abramson’s predecessors also exhibited significant ‘grit,’ were they chastised for being pushy, or were they excused, praised or promoted for being bulldogs?
  • Allegedly, Abramson’s superior, Arthur Sulzberger, was offended that she brought a lawyer into the room when she raised a concern that her male predecessors had been paid more than she. Two questions here. First – would you be equally offended if a man brought a lawyer in? Second, if Abramson’s bringing a lawyer into the room was unusual, then Sulzberger might have asked himself why Abramson felt that she needed this kind of protection to raise a compensation issue with senior management.

This happens at the individual level as well. Many of the male executives that I work with are perplexed by women’s ongoing claims of bias. I can see why. Few, if any, of them have overtly sexist attitudes toward women. But just because they don’t have an explicit belief that women are ‘less than’ doesn’t mean that they don’t have plenty of subtle sexist code in their behavioral DNA.

One of the most direct ways to confront the subtler remnants of bias is to ask yourself this question: “Would I (we) speak/behave/react in this way if this were a man?” If the answer is ‘no,’ then it’s time to look for the remnants of sexist code. For example:

  • Would you normally comment on a male colleague’s appearance? Would you compliment him on the attractiveness of his suit or a recent haircut? No? Then don’t comment on a woman’s appearance either. Recognize women for their work, not their wardrobe. Whether it’s Hillary’s “cankles” or Sarah Palin’s “hotness,” just don’t.
  • If you’re making deals or wielding influence at a place or time that a woman doesn’t have immediate and easy access to, then you are operating on “old code.” Sure, it’s probably easy and natural to conduct business over a cigar and 18 holes. It takes discipline to conduct the “real business” at the table where everyone actually has a seat. Do that.
  • If you’re working in a team, don’t look to the woman to be the notetaker. It’s a subservient role that she’s used to and you’re used to seeing her in. So even if she’s got “the best handwriting,” even if she’s organized, even if she offers – go against the grain. Ask a man to scribe.

I don’t agree with those who believe that Abramson’s firing signals a ‘new’ war on women or a ‘new’ form of sexism. I think it simply points to the bias that still exists in a world where more explicit forms of sexism are fading away. But just because an organization has uninstalled its more explicit sexist programming, it doesn’t mean that the remaining bytes of sexism aren’t powerfully shaping women’s daily experience and running room at work. So if we want to make organizations more productive and vibrant, we need to actively look for those lingering bits of biased code and then take action to erase it from our personal and organizational hard drives.

Melissa Harris-Perry: The Power of Authentic Emotion

I often hear women say that they can’t show emotion at work or they’ll get ‘killed.’ Historically, it has been risky – even career-ending – for women leaders to show emotion, especially in male-dominated cultures. Somehow it makes them seem less credible, less tough, less … you name it. So for survival, women try to sanitize and excise their feelings at work, boiling themselves down to facts and charts. As adaptive as that may be, do we really want our leaders (male or female) to be devoid of expression, stripped of the kind of intelligence that resides only in the emotions? If you ask me, the ‘women can’t be emotional at work’ story has got to change.

This past weekend, Melissa Harris-Perry gave us a compelling picture of why that story needs to evolve and what’s possible when it does. She is the anchor of “Melissa Harris-Perry,” a highly-acclaimed news show on MSNBC. In her final show of 2013, her panelists did a light-hearted review of some of the year’s iconic photos, suggesting humorous captions for each. One was of Mitt Romney’s family, and the panel’s banter focused on Romney’s grandson, a lone African American face in an otherwise all-white family photo. The panelists did not intend the commentary to be critical or mean-spirited. But many viewers (including the Romneys) were hurt and angered by it.

Melissa Harris-Perry’s response? The most vulnerable and true-ringing apology by a public figure that I have ever seen. (http://www.msnbc.com/melissa-harris-perry/apology-melissa-harris-perry). Unlike so many high-profile amends-makers, she did not apologize for someone’s taking offense at her words (which is actually a subtle way to blame those offended for being too sensitive). Rather, she took direct responsibility: she acknowledged that the panel’s banter was offensive. She said that she had exercised poor judgment and had failed to live up to one of her own core values: to keep children safe from media fire.

Harris-Perry fought back tears as she spoke, belying her passion and pain. She looked and sounded heart-broken about the impact of those careless comments on the Romney family and on all mixed-race families. And that’s what I admired most: that she didn’t report her anguish; she revealed it. In her undefended sorrow, she did something magnificent: she led.

 

‘No’ is a complete sentence. (Anne Lamott)

Gracesters, this one’s for you.

What happens when you imagine saying ‘no’ to someone? Does your chest tighten or your stomach knot up? Do emotions arise? Anxiety, perhaps, or even panic? How do you react mentally? Maybe you get fuzzy-headed or think, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly refuse.”

Now recall a recent time when you actually did decline a request. How directly did you communicate your ‘no’? As its own complete sentence, or buried in apologies, tangents or justifications?

There are intense pressures on women at work – even those in leadership positions – to be agreeable, helpful, and ever-available. “No” flies in the face of those expectations. It can be an especially uncomfortable stance for grace-based women leaders, because it risks creating disruption in the relationship. But as a professor of mine once said, “If you can’t say ‘no,’ then your ‘yes’ doesn’t mean much.”

Despite the discomfort it can create within you, there is great and positive power in a clear, unvarnished and respectful decline. It can help you make more realistic commitments, stand up for your values and earn others’ respect. But “No” doesn’t help just you: it contributes also to the health of your team, organization, family or community.

So the question becomes how to bring your unapologetic “no” forward in a way that works? As you know, it’s not an easy question, but here are some ways to start engaging it.

1. Examine your own history with saying “No” and the internal beliefs you carry as a result. If you’re like many women, you have inherited a tangled set of messages about your power and authority. Try to look at that inheritance, taking stock of your history and its impact on your stance toward boundary-setting. Then try to articulate your own present-day views and values about saying “no,” so that you’re operating from a perspective that feels current and supportive. While a new articulation won’t erase your inherited stories, a new mental model can open up the possibility for new patterns of action.

2. Experiment! There are a million ways to deliver a ‘no:’ sweetly, acerbically, forcefully, passively, fearfully, bitchily, authoritatively, quietly, unshakably, tentatively… Play with them all by taking just a few minutes a day by yourself just to experiment with throwing different versions of “no” into the air. See how each one makes you feel. See if you can identify ways of saying it that feel comfortably powerful to you.

Step it up a notch by taking the ‘no’ experiment into low-stakes interactions, like at the grocery store or with your family (if you have that kind of family!). Try saying ‘no’ in places where doing it unskillfully won’t have big negative consequences. The goal is to get more practice and thus get more comfortable with claiming your own authority in all situations.

3. Examine your organization’s culture. I often hear people throwing around cultural generalizations like, “Oh, women can’t do X.” Or, “Women get killed for doing Y.” Certainly, it’s smart to listen to that cultural lore, because it may carry some career-saving wisdom. But test it, too. Look for current, tangible examples of what actually works and doesn’t in your workplace today. Are some women successful at managing boundaries, while others are not? What seems to separate the respected ‘no-sayers’ from those who are seen as aggressive or bitchy?

4. Consider investing in development. I think that each woman’s relationship to “No” is an integral part of her journey to fullness, authority and well-being. Here are a few ideas for development:

  • Read books or take a course. Relevant topics might include assertiveness, conflict management, emotional intelligence, crucial conversations, or executive presence. I recommend more experiential courses over strictly theoretical ones, so that you’re testing concepts by putting them into practice. In this regard, I am a big fan of Joe Weston’s book and workshops on “respectful confrontation.” http://www.respectfulconfrontation.com
  • Set up an agreement with a “no-buddy,” where you support each other in staking your claim and setting boundaries at work and in your personal lives.
  • If you want to take this on more fully, consider investing in an executive coach for customized support. If confrontation and boundary-setting have difficult historical and emotional roots, consider seeking the support of a therapist.

What about you?

How do you react inside, the closer you get to using “No” as a complete sentence, without padding or softening it?

What do you see as the promises and perils of saying “No” so directly?

When have you said “no” in a way that was both definitive (grit) and respectful (grace)? What did you learn from that?

 

 

 

“Respect For The Humanity Of The Adversary”

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing, the world is saying good bye to one of the greatest leaders of our time – indeed, of all time. Over the last week, so much has been said about his character, his brilliance, his humility and his impact as a leader. I find myself with nothing to add to the analysis. Rather, I think the most useful thing I can do is to put myself on the hook of a difficult question: “How can I help to carry forward Nelson Mandela’s legacy?”

It’s a ludicrous question, really. Mandela (like other transformative leaders) provides an exemplar of what is possible. But this example is so remarkable as to seem unattainable. “Sure, but that was Mandela. What does his phenomenal quality of heart and character have to do with me, who’s just slogging away in my small corner of the world?”

It seems to me that one of the ways to honor Mr. Mandela’s legacy is not to learn to be like him (good luck with that), but to learn from him and to translate his example into our own context and scale. The invitation is to take even an iota of what he showed us is possible, and carry that forward in our own way.

The way to answer that invitation, I think, is to chunk his example down to mortal-sized pieces, and apply it to the mundane but meaningful interactions in which most of us engage.

The aspect of Mr. Mandela that has captivated my own imagination is his respect for the humanity of the adversary. Nelson Mandela stands tall in our collective view in part because of his extraordinary ability to maintain a deep respect – not just for the kind of run-of-the-mill adversaries that most of deal with, but for people who hated him, tortured him, even wished him dead. I have no idea how he managed that; it just boggles my mind and stymies my heart. And yet, to quote James Joseph, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, “If Mandela could do that, maybe I can too.”

I don’t know yet where this exploration will take me. I know that my efforts will look laughably humble and mundane. But the greatest way I can honor President Mandela is not with my admiration or adulation, but rather with my action – holding myself accountable to step in a fuller way into some aspect of what he’s taught me is possible.

What about you?

What was it about Nelson Mandela that touched or inspired you most?

In what way is that inspiration an invitation to you to keep Mr. Mandela’s light shining?

How will you put that into action in your world, at your scale, in your way?

 

How Not To Respond To Style-Related Feedback

Harvard Business Review’s September cover kind of says it all. It shows a profile of a woman and three phrases in bold letters:

“Bossy”
“Emotional”
“Too nice”

If you’re a woman in the workplace, you have probably noticed that you’re a lot more likely than your male colleagues to get stylistic criticism. Like it or not, organizations still tend to pay as much attention to how women behave as to what they accomplish.

I think stylistic feedback is the hardest kind of feedback to deal with. It’s one thing to hear that your data was wrong or that your marketing strategy was weak. But stylistic feedback is about you. Whether or not it’s justified or accurate, it’s personal. To make matters worse, people often deliver this kind of feedback quite badly. So it’s hard to hear, hard to decipher and hard to address.

Here are the five most common mistakes I see women make in dealing with stylistic feedback:

1. Denial. This is an understandable and automatic response. If someone says we’re too emotional, we’re likely to respond with, “No I’m not.” Whether or not you feel the feedback is valid, dismissing it out of hand could come back to bite you.

2. Blame. I had one client tell me, “I wouldn’t have to be so demanding if the people around me weren’t such idiots.” Even if every member of your team is woefully inadequate – as long you’re blaming others for your reactions, you’re not learning and the situation will not improve.

3. Intensification. This seems counterintuitive, but I see it happen a lot. Someone gets feedback that what she’s doing isn’t working. Her initial reaction? To do what she’s been doing, but do it harder, longer, faster, more. One client told me, “No matter how much I support my team, they still aren’t delivering. I guess I need to be even more supportive.” In other words, in times of stress we tend to draw more heavily on what we already know and are good at. But when that isn’t getting results, doing more of it usually doesn’t help.

4. Abandonment. This is the opposite response from intensification. The internal message here is, “They say I’m bossy. I guess I’ll just have to start beating around the bush and start sugar-coating everything.” Not a great strategy. You probably won’t be very good at it, and you definitely can’t sustain it long term. Most importantly, no one else is buying it.

5. Style ‘whack a mole.’ Some women I’ve worked with try to suss out each situation and behave as they think others want them to act. I’m not talking about appropriate situational adjustment here, but rather a form of play-acting where you’re trying to be whoever/whatever you think others want you to be, in the hopes that you’ll avoid getting slammed. Big mistake. First of all, it’s exhausting. And ultimately it will backfire. You’ll come across as inauthentic, inconsistent or, worse, manipulative.

However unfair or unskillful stylistic feedback may be, it is always an opportunity to learn something. That’s where I always suggest that people start – looking for the learning nugget. Maybe you will discover something about yourself. Or maybe it can help you understand something new about the feedback-giver. Maybe it will give you valuable insight into the organization’s culture.

About yourself. The leaders I’ve worked with who were most successful at dealing with stylistic feedback have been able to find the grain of truth in it. One of my clients got feedback that she was too judgmental, to which she initially responded with blame. But when I asked her how her relationships at home were going, she reported that her daughter was intimidated by her and avoided contact. Despite the fact that my client still didn’t respect the views of the person who gave her feedback, she was able to see the thread of truth: that her forceful style was getting in the way of important relationships both at home and at work. From that point on, she invested fully in her own development and made stunning stylistic shifts. She developed a strong compassionate side, without ever losing her signature feistiness.

About the feedback giver. If you can’t find any evidence that the stylistic feedback you’ve received is accurate or valid, it still gives you insight into the values and preferences of the feedback-giver. While s/he may be saying that you’re objectively ‘too emotional,’ the meaning may actually be that your style is overpowering to him or her. You may learn from this feedback that dialing down your own intensity will help you be more effective with that person.

About the organization and its culture. I’ve had a lot of clients who have moved to new organizations and been hit with stylistic feedback that they’ve never encountered before. Often, that’s because what was expected or acceptable in a previous environment is devalued in another. For example, I’ve coached many ex-military people who have transitioned to the civilian sector. Once lauded for their directness and clarity, they may be harshly criticized in their new environment for being overbearing. While this feedback may be confusing, it can provide crucial insights into the values of the new organization and the adjustments that you may have to make to be successful there.

If you’re a woman in the workplace, you are much more likely to receive feedback on your style than your male colleagues are. So you might as well plan for it. If it comes your way, try to make sure that you don’t fall for any of the classic unhelpful responses. Instead, use style-related feedback as an opportunity to learn something – about yourself, the person giving you feedback, or your organization.