“Bulldog,” Not “Bitch.” Elizabeth Warren’s Master Class For Powerful Women

Relax, this isn’t a political post. Just a lesson from a political person about women’s exhibiting strength in a way that works.

I’ve heard a lot of women say that they can’t be strong at work without being branded as bitchy or aggressive. I get where they’re coming from. Organizations can be pretty punishing to women with a direct or forceful communication style. In addition, organizations often allow men to exhibit much more intensity than they would ever tolerate from women.

And yet… I have also observed powerful women leaders who do not get labeled, judged or ‘killed’ for their strength. What do they have in common, and what are they doing differently from the rest? They seem to be the leaders who have the best stylistic blend of grit and grace, wielding influence with neither apology nor intimidation. As a result, they’re able to exercise power in a way that commands respect and sways opinion.

One of the best examples of this kind of woman leader is Massachusetts Senator and Democratic candidate for President, Elizabeth Warren. I’m not addressing her political views or prospects here. But stylistically, she exhibits a remarkable balance of what I call “grit and grace.” That blend of styles allows her to advocate fiercely for the issues she cares about, without being dismissed as a bitch. Even as her campaign for President mounts in strength, she’s managed largely to elude that critique.

How does she DO that?  

A video clip of  an early Senate Banking Committee Hearing on Bank Money Laundering is Warren’s master class on power that blends grit and grace. Watch and learn.

Based just on this video clip, Senator Warren exemplifies several key principles that we can apply in our own contexts.

  1. She balances passion and reason. There’s no doubt that she cares about what she’s saying. Her voice is animated, her body is leaning in, and her questioning is pointed. Yet her content is factual and her arguments are well-reasoned.
  2. She doesn’t allow herself to be pushed over, but she never goes on the attack. She came to this hearing with one central question: “How big of a crime does a financial institution have to commit before it faces getting shut down or before someone actually goes to jail?” In response, the panelists weave, dodge, obfuscate and redirect. But she returns, over and over, to her central question. And she does so with grace-laced language: “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt you. But I’m not hearing your opinion on this.”
  3. She’s passionate but doesn’t get emotionally hooked. Two male panelists did something that a lot of women have experienced – the men assumed a paternalistic tone toward Warren, and tried to explain “the way it works.” It’s a classic move to imply a lack of competence and understanding on Warren’s part. Each time, she replied clearly but without defensiveness. She quickly dismissed the implied slight: “Sir, I understand the limits of your organization’s authority, and I have read your full testimony.” And then returned, with an even keel, to her inquiry. “But are you saying that you have no opinion on how much drug money a bank can launder before it should be shut down?”
  4. She’s fighting for something greater than her own interests. Whether or not you agree with Senator Warren’s positions, she seems like a values-based leader, not driven by ideology or personal interests. Part of why Warren’s grit works is that it seems to arise from authenticity rather than gamesmanship.
  5. She’s humble. In an interview just this week, she was asked why she continues to stay after rallies for hours to take selfies with every single person who wants one. Her reply was simple: “It’s true that I stayed for four hours after the rally in New York City. So did the last guy in line.”

What about you?

Can you recall a situation where you “brought the grit” but neglected the grace?

  • Which of the five principles above – 1) blending passion with reason, 2) staying rooted without going on the attack, 3) not getting emotionally hooked, 4) fighting for something greater than yourself, or 5) humility – did you not bring to bear in that interaction?
  • How did that feel inside? How were you received by others?
  • How might you have worked with any of the five principles to bring a more blended and effective form of power in that situation?

Conversely, recall an interaction when you felt that you expressed yourself in a way that was both grit-full and grace-full.

  • What was your impact there? How did it differ from your impact when you only brought grit forward?
  • What reminders, images or practices can help you balance grit and grace when you want to express yourself in a powerful way?

“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 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.

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.

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!

 

Are Compensation And Hearing Connected?

I first saw this Punch cartoon in the 1980’s. Yet in her recent NY Times article, “Speaking While Female,” Sheryl Sandberg tells us what women already know from direct experience: that even today, organizations continue to muffle women’s voices in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

The fact that organizations pay for talent and then silence it absolutely dumbfounds me. Why would you not want to get every bit of value from your salary dollars? But then it occurred to me – maybe organizations are doing just that. After all, women are paid just 78¢ on every dollar paid to a man, and maybe that has relational consequences as well as financial ones. For if a salary is a valuation of someone’s worth, then why would we want to listen to the person who’s 22% less valuable?

I know that the road to true equity – where no one group is inherently advantaged or disadvantaged – is a long and complicated one. But I wonder whether compensation parity might actually help shift the way we listen to women. If we paid women what we paid men, might we pay similar attention to them as well? And wouldn’t that go a long way to helping women bridge the confidence gap?  

What’s your own sense of this?  Do you think that if organizations’ checkbooks were as open to women as to men, that their minds and ears might follow suit – even a little?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10,000 Strong…And Stressed

people rushing on escalatorI attended the Massachusetts Conference for Women last week, where 10,000 women, dressed mostly in black outfits with sharp, masculine lines, convened for a day of learning from top-notch speakers.

It was a terrific conference and a very worthwhile day. Yet, I came out of it disheartened. Why? Because what I heard, over and over again, were the voices of women under heavy stress: over-programmed and under the microscope; low on sleep and full of self-doubt. For example:

  • On her path of becoming an actress, Lupita Nyong’o talked about having to slay the three inner dragons of “self-doubt, self-hatred, and self-denial.”
  • Hillary Clinton and Tory Burch emphasized that the demands on working women with families were too great to tackle alone. Each woman said that their success simply would not have been possible without strong systems of support.
  • Author John Gray shared research that shows that, in Norway, which has the world’s best working conditions for women, women are still pumping out 4 times as much cortisol (the stress hormone) as men.  And remember… that’s in the best of conditions. For those who are working in less enlightened circumstances or closer to the survival line, the stress is exponentially greater.
  • Women continue to be unsupportive of each other in the workplace.  As TV personality Cindy Stumpo said, “Women in their 40’s and 50’s are the ones intimidating my daughters at work.  We’re supposed to be helping the next generation, not tearing them down.”

I established Leading With Grit & Grace® to support women in forging a more potent and sustainable form of leadership, where toughness and tenderness work in tandem for everyone’s benefit. But what’s hitting me squarely in the face today is that, while we women strive to treat others with both grit and grace, we often fail to direct that virtuous balance toward ourselves.

Rather, grit tends to prevail. We are ever-striving… to do more, multitask more masterfully, get that next promotion, pick up the kids, and look our best while doing it all. Is this our best and only option – to keep tightening the screws on ourselves to satisfy the external demands and power past the voice of self-doubt?

I hope not. I’m interested in a different invitation. Amid the many external demands pressures we women face, how can we increase the amount of grace that we bestow upon ourselves and each other?  What would it take for each of us to take responsibility to give ourselves the kind of care, attention and compassion that we say we need and want?

If you struggle with this – or if you succeed at this – please comment and share your experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

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.

“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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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.