“Let Her Speak” – A Job Aid for Men

Last week, Texas State Senator Wendy Davis filibustered against “SB5”, a sweeping anti-abortion bill before the Texas Senate. At one point during her 13-hour filibuster speech, several Senators tried to interrupt her. According to Texas law, any interruption in Davis’ speech would disqualify the filibuster, and the bill that she was trying to prevent would pass. In response to the attempts to silence Ms. Davis, a large crowd of onlookers in the State Capital building chanted: “Let her speak! Let her speak.” And speak she did: for 13 hours straight, amid all the chaos, successfully quashing SB5.

As I heard the crowd chant, I realized the larger truth and wisdom of the message, “Let her speak.” It made me think of the scores of times I’ve heard men in organizations request guidance on how to deal effectively with their women counterparts. I realized that the onlookers in the Texas rotunda had offered up an important key to the guidance men are looking for. Building on the crowd’s spontaneous wisdom last week, here is a starter kit for men who want to be more skillful in working with women.

Let her speak.

Simple as that. Make sure that the woman at the meeting table has as much opportunity to speak as anyone else. Let her enter the conversation, and let her finish her thought.

Listen with high expectations of her value.

Several years ago, I saw a wonderful cartoon in the New York Times. It showed a boardroom table at which were seated several men and one woman. The caption read, “That’s an excellent point, Ms. Trigg. Perhaps one of the men would like to make it.” Most women will tell you that that still happens today. So men, please expect that the woman’s opinion will be of value equal to the man’s, and listen accordingly. Don’t roll your eyes or consult your email while she’s speaking. Don’t mentally critique her hair cut, vocal tone, attire or body parts. Don’t wait for another man to make or validate her point. She has something to say: ask yourself to hear it with the expectation that it’ll matter.

Listen for the gold she may bring.

The more senior she is in the organization, the more likely it is that she’ll be one of the few women at the table. As a result, she may be offering a different perspective, a minority opinion. The minority opinion is so tempting to ignore. It’s a fly in our efficiency ointment, slowing us down. It’s also inconvenient, making us consider something we don’t, can’t or don’t want to see. But it also has great potential power to warn us of a cliff we don’t see coming, to give us critical information for a more sound decision, or to revolutionize our thinking altogether. Whether it’s a woman, person of color, or just a person with a routinely different point of view – listen hard to whomever brings the ‘inconvenient truth’ to your table.

So for anyone who wants to work with women more effectively, here are a few starting tips. Let her speak. Listen with high expectations. And listen for the gold she brings. For she is as able and likely as anyone to turn this conversation on its ear. Just ask the Texas State Senate.


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?

Authenticity 2.0

Authenticity at work: is that an oxymoron? A pipedream? Most of us long to be more authentic at work, yet in most organizations, authenticity is in short supply.

Here’s a quick exercise that illustrates why that might be so. Identify a current work situation that you think is being badly handled but that you haven’t confronted.  If you had a free pass to react authentically – with no threat of repercussion –  what would you do?  Now… if you actually did or said that, what do you think would happen? For many of us, that much honesty could constitute career suicide.

This is the double bind of authenticity.  We long for it, but it’s risky.   So we resign ourselves to the belief that being who we really are is only possible in ‘enlightened’ organizations – which is certainly not where WE work.

Part of our problem is that we define authenticity in a very limiting way.  Many people equate it with ‘full transparency.’ But this can easily slide into spewing our thoughts, feelings and judgments onto others, all in the name of being true to ourselves. Don’t get me wrong. Sharp honesty has its place; it can clear the air and let people know where you stand. But simply letting it all hang out backfires a lot: escalating conflict and misunderstanding, eroding trust, and damaging reputations. You’re smart to be wary of that.

So what are our choices? ‘Let it rip’ or ‘zip it?’ Ugh.

A new option has to begin with a new perspective.  Rather than defining authenticity as ‘full transparency,’ what if we see it as ‘speech and actions that arise from our deepest values?’  That’s a very different proposition. This requires discipline, restraint, clarity and skill. It allows us to be true to ourselves and to connect meaningfully with others, without doing harm or selling ourselves out.

What would that look like in practice?  Gwen, a client of mine, gave me a living example. She was a self-employed consultant, and had signed on as a subcontractor to a larger consulting firm.  She was about to undertake her first assignment for that firm, and had negotiated the rates and terms for the project. The day before the work was set to begin, her phone rang. It was the firm’s project manager. He said, “Gwen, I hate to tell you this, but we just got the final paperwork from our client today, and the approved budget is 30% less than they agreed to verbally. So although we promised you $X, we can only pay you 70% of that.”

Gwen was genuinely and legitimately furious. If she had defined authenticity simply as “full disclosure,” Gwen would likely have responded with some pretty unsavory words. But with the client expecting work to begin the next day, and with a new work relationship in the balance, Gwen had a lot at stake. She wanted to be truthful in her response, but she also wanted to be skillful. She called me to help her sort it out.

I asked her two questions; here’s how she worked with them.

  1. What deeply-held values do you want your response to reflect?  “This is my first engagement with this firm, so I want my actions to communicate that I’m not a doormat, that this is really not OK with me. Second, I believe that those who mismanaged the process should bear the largest burden of the mismanagement.  Third, I want my actions to communicate empathy and my commitment to this team. This has put us all in a tough position, and I care about both the client and my relationships at the consulting firm.
  2. What can you say or do that will successfully reflect those values?  “I want the project manager to understand where I’m coming from, so I’ll start by sharing the principles driving my response.  Then I’ll offer this proposal: I’ll carry on with the project, because I don’t want to leave the client in the lurch.  But I won’t agree to take a 30% cut in my rate.  But I will decrease my fees by 10% to acknowledge that I care about this relationship and that we’re all in this together.”

The result?  The firm gratefully agreed to Gwen’s terms. As a result of how she handled the situation, Gwen also gained the reputation as the ‘most ethical and principled’ of all the firm’s subcontractors. Her influence and political capital at the firm remained very high for the life of the working relationship.

Gwen had acted authentically. Identifying and acting on her deeper values had been the key. Had she responded simply with emotional transparency, the relationship would likely have ended in a firestorm of blame and resentment.  Gwen was true to her anger – not by spewing it, uncensored, but by using it to identify what really mattered to her and behave in a way that reflected that.

Could values-based authenticity work for you?  Take the situation you identified at the top of this article, and see what happens when you look at it through the lens of the two questions.  Does it show you something new about yourself, the situation, or how you might respond?  Let us know!

Give Marissa Mayer a Break!

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, is tasked with reinvigorating a stagnant company.  She must look for every possible lever to boost Yahoo’s innovation. One of her strategies: bring people back to work. Stimulate creativity by bringing people back into direct face-to-face collaboration. No more telecommuting.


Actually, I get the fury.  If I were telecommuting, I would hate this policy reversal. I might have to scramble to find new child care arrangements that I didn’t used to need and I can’t easily afford. It might actually make it impossible for me to stay in my job because I depended on being able to be home to care for family members. Or I might have to sit in horrendous Silicon Valley traffic for hours a day.  Or it might just take away the treasured convenience of working in my bunny slippers and changing loads of laundry while I work. Whether the impact is dire or just inconvenient to the folks at Yahoo, it’s real and it matters.

But I have problems with the criticisms that Mayer is getting.

  1. She has deprived employees of an inalienable right. Telecommuting is a corporate strategy, not an entitlement. If a company’s practice doesn’t support a company’s current circumstances or goals, it should be changed. If creativity is a strategic imperative for Yahoo now, and if Mayer thinks that face-to-face collaboration will accomplish or support that imperative, then she should try it. 
  2. She has betrayed ‘her kind’. One of the odd narratives arising is that, as a working mother, she owes it to other working mothers to let them work from home. After all, she is ‘one of us;’ she should know better. I find this puzzling and offensive. First of all, Mayer is a wealthy working mother; I question the assessment that she really is ‘one of us.’ She may actually not be as in touch with the financial and logistical impacts of the telecommuting ban as we think she should be. But it’s also possible that as a mother, she understands, as few CEOs do, exactly the sacrifice she’s asking working mothers to make. It’s possible that innovation is THAT important right now.

And let’s put this whole issue in a larger perspective. We still have an unemployment rate of 8%. We have hundreds of thousands of Federal workers facing furloughs and even termination. For the millions of people who are now or soon to be unemployed or underemployed, having to go into an office would be a pretty good problem to have.

I doubt this policy change would be news if Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates were making it. It’s news because Melissa is making it. Because she’s a working mom, we expect her to be nice to other working moms. We expect her status as a working mother to soften the edges of her judgment, to let an assumed demographic affiliation trump the company’s need for innovation.

Really, 2013?


“Fatigue Is Your Enemy”

A couple of months ago, Harvard Business Review posted a good blog on the impact that fatigue has on our bodies and effectiveness.  Fatigue Is Your Enemy – Harvard Business Review  But making the case for self-care is relatively easy. Scientists, theologians, psychologists and leadership experts have proven its positive affects again and again.  But taking action for self care is a different story.  As I witness my clients wrestle with fatigue , despite knowing that they should ‘do better’ at taking care of themselves, I’ve learned how actively we collude with ourselves and each other to keep us all working to exhaustion.

To address the chronic fatigue among our leaders, staff and organizations, it’s not enough to rejigger our calendars. You’ve probably tried, and it probably didn’t work. Vanquishing the energy of fatigue requires confronting ourselves and each other at a very personal – even existential – level.  Sure, you say you want to take better care of yourself, but that has some uncomfortable and potentially serious consequences.  If your self-worth is built upon being indispensable to others, then self-stewardship will mess with that in a big way. You’d have to delegate more and discover that someone else can do the task and render you irrelevant, or that they will fail and make you look bad. Could you recover from either of those? Or maybe self-care will require you to take some time off and discover that the office operates just fine for a while without you. Then where will you be? Or perhaps you would have to deny help to someone. What would that mean about you?

Attending to your own renewal is not just complicated for you. It’s also complicated for those around you. Many of the leaders I work with have had others beg them to take better care of themselves. And yet… When they responded in earnest, when they drew a line or refused to pick up a task they used to accept without hesitation, others were not always pleased. Whether explicit or implied, the message they received went something like this: “Sure, I wanted you to take care of yourself, but not NOW.  Not in THIS recession. Not on THIS task. Not if it affects ME.”

Fatigue, if unheeded, is an enemy.  It drains your sustainability, generativity, creativity, clarity, strength and grace.  But vanquishing that enemy will take a lot more than a simple resolution to take your lunch hour, leave at 5, or use your vacation time.  It takes real courage to take the risk that your value does NOT depend on saying yes to every request.  It takes courage to tolerate the discomfort of making others uncomfortable, disappointed or angry.  It takes a willingness to step out of sync with our culture’s obsession with busy-ness, its worship of work, and its celebration of heroic effort.

It is no small feat to take this enemy on.

What about you?

How does fatigue affect you?  How does it affect your mood, sense of well being?  Your relationships?  Your effectiveness?

What 1 – 3 self-stewardship changes would you like to make?

What internal resistance would you likely confront if you actually made those stewardship changes?

What external resistance would you likely confront if you took action to take better care of yourself?


“Political and economic might” – Is this the definition of ‘power’ we want?

Forbes has just published its annual list of the world’s 100 Most Powerful Women. http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinehoward/2012/08/22/the-worlds-100-most-powerful-women-2012-this-year-its-all-about-impact/.

I applaud these women for their amazing impact and success, and I applaud Forbes for recognizing them. Yet it makes me wonder. Do Forbes’ more traditional criteria for power – “political and economic might” – seem broad enough? These are good and valid measures of power.  I just don’t think they’re broad enough, because I don’t think they help us rethink power in the ways that power needs to be rethought.

I’d like to see a list of the most powerful peacemakers; the most effective educators; the most inspiring role models; the greatest champions for those without a voice.  Whether or not you will ever hear about them, these are women of power as well. Forbes won’t be heralding them, but someone should. Over the coming months, I’ll be working with InPower Women www.inpowerwomen.com to establish an annual award to recognize women who demonstrate an expanded, more current form of power: measured not by the size of title or income, but rather by the quality of their impact and character.  Stay tuned!



The Secret to Compassion? Boundaries!

I recently watched a talk given by Dr. Brene Brown, a renowned social scientist whose work centers on understanding the phenomenon of shame. In her extensive research (over 7,000 people interviewed), she started to notice that a small subset of her subjects stood out as being particularly compassionate, filled with a capacity for natural and strings-free generosity. When the main thrust of her research was done, she resolved to go back to determine what attributes or mindsets the truly compassionate shared in common. What she found surprised her, surprises me, and gives us all something to think about.

Dr. Brown found that the people who were the most compassionate were the ones who established and held the clearest boundaries! Why? Because, as she says, when you take care of yourself, you can care more skillfully and whole-heartedly for others. Conversely, when you abandon yourself on behalf of others, your giving can carry an undertone of resentment, manipulation or powerlessness.

Let’s look at this from a ‘grit and grace’ perspective. If you are someone with a ‘grace’ preference, giving to others is probably very natural. Yet is your giving  compassionate? When giving is not balanced with boundary-setting, it can become a form of self-protection, geared more to our own well-being than to others’.  Take Sarah, a grace-based leader who believed that she had no choice but to say ‘yes’ to every request that came her way. With every ‘yes,’ she told herself that she was being a good team player, that she was caring for others. Yet she was exhausted and seething with resentment. How compassionate was that? It wasn’t until she started setting limits on her giving that her performance ratings at work and her relationships at home improved. While it may sound counterintuitive, stronger boundaries enabled Sarah to be a more truly giving and kind person.

From the grit side of the equation, boundary-setting is likely to come naturally to you. You can probably resist raising your hand when your organization is looking for volunteers, so you’re not as likely to get overwhelmed by giving you can’t sustain. You may be comfortable saying ‘no’ to requests that don’t line up with your own or your team’s priorities, which protects folks from overcommitment. Not getting yourself or your staff in over your heads is an act of compassion. Yet with boundaries firmly in place, the invitation to you may be to soften up those boundaries a bit and offer up more of the resources and knowledge that reside within your purview.

What about you?

What does giving from a place of choicelessness or obligation feel like?  How can you tell when your giving is coming from this place?

What does giving from a place of true compassion feel like?  How is it different from self-serving giving?

How could boundaries increase your capacity to be more compassionate?


How is your ‘rest life?’

“I’m exhausted… like ‘end-of-my-rope’ exhausted. But I feel guilty taking time off.”

My clients, especially women, say this to me a lot. It comes from a deeply embedded cultural value that work is good, and non-work is non-good.  If you’re running from dawn to midnight, you must matter. If you’re well-rested, then you must be expendable.

Many of us take better care of our cars than we do of ourselves.  We understand that it’s necessary and advisable to get the car checked regularly, because routine maintenance may prevent us from getting stranded at the worst possible time. We know we shouldn’t wait till the car’s broken down to change the oil. We don’t see the car as somehow flawed because it requires regular care.  But when it comes to ourselves, this is EXACTLY how we tend to think – that we can only afford to attend to ourselves when we’re completely spent or hair-on-fire stressed out. We tend to view cultivating our ‘rest life’ as something we do only when the outside world has stopped making demands of us.  As if.  

I firmly believe that personal renewal is foundational to our effectiveness. I know the territory of burnout, and it’s very hard to come back from. I now understand that a rest life – in the form of quiet, solitude, reflection and engaging in the things that feed us – is essential, especially if we want to be effective in our work, family and community lives. Yet everything around us is calling us away from rest, toward overwork and its accompanying stress.

I’ve come to see stress as an addiction, as potentially dangerous as any other.   So does Patrick Lencioni, author of an excellent article on executives’ addiction to adrenaline. http://www.leadershipreview.org/2005winter/LencioniArticle.pdf   Stress is addictive for several reasons.  First, the chemicals that our bodies generate in response to stress produce an emotional and physiological “high.”  For better and for worse, stress is kind of a rush. If we go into stress mode more often and for longer times, our adrenal glands pump out those high-inducing hormones around the clock. This makes you restless 24/7, which can make time-outs very uncomfortable.  So you keep trucking, even though that’s drawing down your body’s reserves.

Stress is addictive also because our culture values heroics. We get kudos for pulling off that monster proposal, for solving that problem that no one else could solve, for being the first one to arrive at work and the last one to leave. Women have also internalized an expectation that they should ‘do it all’ and ‘have it all.’ But even if we could reach that standard (and that’s debatable), it doesn’t mean we should. 

You’re in luck.  April is National Stress Awareness Month. It’s a nationally-mandated excuse to become more aware of the stress in your life and its effects on you. With this awareness, you’re equipped to take action toward more balance and resilience. It’s a great excuse to move your ‘rest life’ further up the list of priorities, and watch how that affects the other parts of your life for the better.

Questions to guide your inquiry

On a scale of 1 – 10 (10 being best), how well do you currently attend to your rest life?
What are the pros and cons of attending to your personal care and renewal at that level?  How does your current level of care benefit you?  What is it costing you?
What rating would you like to be able to give yourself?
What would that make possible for yourself and for others?
What two concrete, doable steps can you take in April to move toward that level of self-care?



It’s getting better for women – AND we’re not ‘done’ yet

Here’s a very interesting article in this week’s The Glass Hammer. http://www.theglasshammer.com/news/2012/04/03/are-women-really-getting-even/  It’s emarkable that antiquated and biased attitudes toward women are still alive and well in the national discourse.    Kudos to the Catalyst organization, who is finding new ways to move the dialogue forward.  Importantly, they are actively working to integrate men into the conversation about women: http://www.onthemarc.org/home


McKinsey makes the case for women at the top

This is a very informative video summarizing McKinsey’s research on the bottom line impact of women in senior leadership.  I appreciate McKinsey’s initial research question: Does it actually matter to have women at the top?  Do women leaders make a difference to organizational effectiveness?  Their findings: yes. Women Matter | McKinsey & Company