In their New York Times article, Speaking While Female, Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg powerfully illustrate the double bind professional women are in when it comes to speaking up at work. If they speak up, women are called “bossy” or, worse, the other “B” word—and, if they don’t speak up, they are called a “door mat.” This double bind is echoed in our work with clients where we hear stories of women being interrupted, cut off, and shut down during conversations, more so than their male counterparts.
Grant and Sandberg’s article also provides statistics that show speaking up doesn’t help women’s credibility. In fact, where outspoken men are seen as leaders, equally outspoken women are seen negatively—gaining the reputation of being self-promoting, high-maintenance and bossy (and not in a good way, as the perception is for men).
How do we change this dynamic so women can grow their leadership roles and careers while companies also become more inclusive, and thereby benefit from women’s leadership roles?
Grant and Sandberg offer some ideas that work, from a no-interrupting rule at meetings to blind audition practices. We want to build on these, giving individual women and organizations three proactive changes to alter this dynamic and benefit both women’s careers and the entire company.
Change your Participation
While organizations must take proactive steps to change their gender-biased cultures, women can feel disempowered while waiting for these cultural shifts. Providing tools to empower women moves people away from blaming the victim and feeling outcast, and instead, promotes true leadership that is available to all everyone. We all are responsible for our own career paths. We need to lead ourselves toward those outcomes while standing up for organizational change.
Here are three skills you can develop to make progress without feeling ostracized in the process.
- Develop your communication skills. The first step is to become aware of and then honor your default communication style. Do you tend to be an introverted person who is a good listener but passively keeps quiet in a tense situation? Or are you an extroverted person who can easily speak your mind yet aggressively overreact if in a stressful situation? After you are aware, establish an authentic voice that is true to your style of communication: If you are a good listener, recap what’s happening so people feel heard. If you are extroverted, recognize when you need to pause and hear from others. There isn’t one perfect way to speak up and participate in the conversation. The more authentic your voice, the more you can effectively communicate.
- Establish an intention for each meeting. Rather than passively showing up at a meeting, arrive knowing what is expected of you and what you want to contribute. When you are actively engaged in the meeting, your body language and attentiveness increase the chances of your adding to the dialogue in a meaningful way. When presenting your ideas, you don’t need to build a case for a proposal that you have. Instead, start with the end, discuss the point of what you are proposing upfront, and keep it simple. Also, experiment with joining the pace of the conversation. For example, if you are talking and someone interrupts you, respectfully state, “Hang on. Give me one more minute to finish my thought.” If someone claims your idea as her or his own, give that person kudos for agreeing with you.
- Cultivate leadership skills based on your strengths. We worked with a specific client who was a detail-oriented, introverted listener who wanted to progress in her career, but didn’t know how to effectively participate and speak up in meetings. During a formal mentoring program, she was paired with her CEO, and she shared her detail-oriented strengths. As a result, she was never made to be put “on the spot” in a meeting to come up with an innovative idea. She was given time at meetings to meaningfully share the status of important projects and propose how to move forward most quickly. This resulted in a dramatic increase in her credibility and a promotion. Contribute your strengths, and you will be seen and heard.
Change the Format
Sandberg and Grant discuss approaches organizations have made to equitably include everyone on the team. One organization instituted a “no-interruption rule” while anyone provides a proposal, and others have adopted blind auditions to increase the number of women selected.
Here are three proactive steps that make a difference, without swinging the pendulum too far toward excluding the talented men in your organization along the way.
- Give people time to prepare or process. This will benefit anyone on your team who needs time to develop their thoughts, likes to gather data, or leans toward introversion. You can do this by sending out meeting agendas in advance or giving people a few minutes to write their reactions, ideas or questions during meetings.
- Hear from everyone during a discussion. Outside of meeting times, get to know the people you work with individually. Learn their strengths and understand how they can contribute. During the meeting, have a facilitative style to include input from everyone at the table. You can do this informally by calling on people who’ve been silent. You can also go around the table to hear thoughts from each person, particularly on a controversial topic.
- Leverage and acknowledge the unique strengths of your team.When you know the talents and aspirations of each person you work with, you can begin to work as a fluid team that respects, communicates and leverages each other for the greater combined goal. This replaces competitive behavior that can lead to overriding, interrupting, and shutting down key contributors. And when this happens, magic happens.
Change the Results
The combination of having women themselves contribute so that they are heard and valued, while making changes at the larger institutional levels, will alter the landscape. We believe that these best practices will elevate company culture for all employees and benefit bottom-line business results in the process.