You don’t have to be a jerk to be powerful

You don’t have to be a jerk to be powerful

You don’t have to be a jerk to be powerful

Photo Credit: (Thomas Barwick / Getty Images)

This article is written and orginially published on April 27, 2018 by author Fran Hauser on LinkedIn.

I recently spoke at a university about leading with compassion to a group of about one hundred students, most of whom were female. When my talk was over and it was time for the question and answer session, I noticed that out of the twenty or so hands that went up, only one of them belonged to a female student. Yet after I finished answering the questions and I was leaving the stage, several female students lined up to have a chance to speak with me one on one.

After the event was over, I spent some time talking to the Dean of the Business School, and I pointed out what I’d noticed about the female students who seemed more comfortable talking to me individually than asking a question in front of the entire group. He responded by saying, “The exact same thing happens at every single event no matter who the speaker is.”

It struck me that these young women — who had so impressed me with their confidence and intelligence in our one-on-one conversations — were still holding themselves back by not speaking up in front of others. But it really shouldn’t have surprised me. Throughout my career, I’ve observed how many women have this tendency to remain quiet at work in group situations. This is something that I actively had to fight against myself.

Once I did find my voice, I saw that it was necessary to speak up in order to be as effective as possible in my role while many of the women around me fell into the trap of being seen as ineffective or weak because they never took a vocal stand. No matter how brilliant and impressive these women may have been in one on one discussions, not speaking up in meetings hurt their chances of succeeding professionally. When women don’t share their ideas with a large number of people, their contributions are easily overlooked, and it’s difficult for them to be seen as leaders. People naturally want to follow people who take a stand and who voice their opinions with confidence.

Speaking up isn’t just important for your own career advancement. Your thoughts, ideas, and opinions are valuable, and if they’re not heard, it’s truly a missed opportunity. In 2014, Scientific American published a groundbreaking special report on how diversity powers innovation. By studying decades of research, they concluded that groups “with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation,” are more creative and innovative than homogenous groups. As a result, hearing multiple and diverse opinions consistently leads to better business outcomes. This means that no matter what industry you work in, you can help your company and your own career if you learn to speak up and add your unique and valuable perspective.

The Disease to Please

So why do so many women still subconsciously sabotage their own success by not speaking up? For one thing, women who do speak assertively are often perceived as being overly aggressive or pushy — a double standard that makes it difficult for women to know how to voice their opinions without polarizing themselves from their peers. This goes back to a tendency to want to please others. Taking a stand will inevitably alienate someone — or so we assume — so instead we play it safe, act as people pleasers, and keep quiet.

This “people pleasing” habit often begins in childhood. According to research by Jo Ann Deak, Ph.D., when girls are between the ages of eight and twelve, they first become aware of how others perceive them and start “camouflaging” what they really think and feel in order to blend in better with their peers. These girls don’t want to stand out, so they stop speaking up and voicing their opinions and start acting like everyone else in order to please others and fit in.

Before this kicks in, most girls have no problem expressing their own unique perspectives, which, if you’ve spent any time with a girl under the age of eight, you undoubtedly already know! But many of the tween and teenage girls Deak spoke to admitted to remaining quiet even when they had an opinion or important knowledge on a subject to avoid being seen as “too eager,” “annoying,” or, “overbearing.”

This may seem like a normal part of being a teenager, but its long-range impact can actually be very damaging. When girls begin camouflaging their true selves as their identities are just developing, they lose out on an important chance to discover what they really think and feel and how to best express that. As a result, despite decades of women’s empowerment messaging, many women in the workplace still struggle with this tendency to camouflage, hide, or dilute their thoughts and ideas rather than communicate them directly. It’s one of the key issues that my mentees ask me about—how to speak both kindly and assertively—and was the number one question from the women around the country I surveyed. Here are some of the things they had to say:

  • “If I keep quiet, my boss thinks I have nothing to add, but if I speak up too often, my coworkers think I’m a bitch. I just can’t win.”
  • “I naturally communicate in a straightforward style, but this is often taken the wrong way, and people think I’m being rude. I resent feeling like I have to act like somebody else at work just to get along.”
  • “I have a really hard time speaking up in meetings. I usually think that other people’s opinions are more valuable than mine, and I don’t want to waste people’s time by talking just to hear my own voice.”

Does any of this sound familiar? It sure did to me. It’s incredibly difficult to feel like you’re constantly bumping up against an implicit bias that as an assertive woman you’re being perceived as rude, pushy, and even angry.

Unfortunately, additional biases can make this even more complex. I recently spoke about this with Anna Chavez, the author, speaker, attorney, and former CEO of The Girl Scouts of the USA. As a strong, successful woman of color, Anna felt throughout her career that she was unfairly labeled as angry or aggressive when she simply voiced her opinion at work. Yet she also had to fight to be taken seriously — an almost impossible balancing act to pull off.

Anna told me about one situation early in her career. It was the first time she was sent out to represent a federal agency in an enforcement hearing. She was barely two years out of law school and looked young for her age. She walked into the hearing room in Aurora, Colorado, and found several men already seated at the conference table. One of the officials looked at Anna and asked her if she knew when the hearing officer would be arriving because he and his corporate colleagues were very busy and needed to get back to their office. He assumed that she was a secretary or paralegal. Anna paused and said, “Well, you’re lucky. The hearing officer is here and I am ready to start the proceedings.”

All of the men were shocked that Anna would be determining the outcome of this federal hearing, and throughout the proceedings Anna found herself trying to prove her gravitas to these men while still coming across as likeable. In the years since then, Anna has learned to stay true to herself by focusing on the good she was trying to do through her job and always trying to act as a model to others by treating them in the way she wanted to be treated. It may sound like a cliché, but this focusing inward helped her display a quiet confidence that strikes that difficult balance between strong and kind, assertive and empathetic.

To me, Anna is living proof that we don’t have to give up our niceness in order to be powerful. We can make room for others and take up an appropriate amount of space for ourselves. It doesn’t diminish anyone else for you to stand up straight and speak with authority. In fact, it’s a gift to other women to take the space and air time that you need because the more women stop camouflaging themselves, the more we lead the way for every woman and girl to be as powerful as they can be.

Fran Hauser is the author of The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate, from which this article is excerpted.

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