The idea that women are holding themselves back in the corporate rat race has been getting a lot of press since Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s interview with 60-Minutes. While I certainly agree that there is more we as women can do to promote ourselves, we need to do more than acknowledge the problem and say we need to change it. We need to arm women with knowledge and skills so they can become successful early and often. I believe these efforts start with understanding why the problem is so challenging to overcome and what we can really do about it.
There are four underlying issues that hold women back:
- Our “Communication DNA” – Perhaps at the dawn of time when a woman’s best bet for survival was to be fed and protected by someone else it made sense to be cautious about engaging in a disagreement or voicing a dissenting opinion. Are we still being hampered by that history?
- Our “Communication Fingerprint” – Each of us has a unique way we use language, learned first from family members and altered by every new person in our life. How we address or avoid conflict is a product of behaviors learned over the course of our lives. Girls are often not allowed to play the rough and tumble games that teach boys how to assert themselves in a group.
- The “Communication Myth” – Look at almost any LinkedIn profile or resume and you will see everyone believes they are better than average at communication. So clearly any miscommunication “must be the other person’s fault.”
- Girls are taught to be “nice” – A nice girl would never stand up for herself and say something that might sound like she was being confrontational. Sadly, many feel it is better to complain behind someone’s back or say “I told you so” after the decision has been made and failed. Logically, we know this way of thinking only leads to workplace drama and office politics but the drive to be “nice” is too strong.
Understanding the foundation of the problem is only half the battle. We also need to know how to transform what is holding us back into the ability to leverage conflict in a productive way. We need to be better able to say “I hear and respect what you are saying. This is where I disagree and believe we can make the idea better.”
Here are some suggestions for how to develop and hone your ability to have a professional disagreement and create better outcomes:
- Recognize that conflict is a good thing. If two or more people are talking and no one is disagreeing, someone is lying. There is no way everyone always agrees all of the time. As long as it is productive and moving the conversation toward the best outcome, conflict is not only good, it is necessary. It is what makes good ideas great and keeps bad ideas from being implemented.
- Believe your ideas are valuable. Too many women think what they have to say isn’t important. Not only are they doing a disservice to themselves, they are failing their team and the project. Every voice, no matter how inexperienced, is valuable. I often remind my clients that even a “bad” idea can be the starting point for a great discussion that leads to a positive outcome.
- Trust your gut. The part of your brain that is responsible for feelings doesn’t have access to language. Give yourself permission to take the time you need to figure out why something makes you uncomfortable. It doesn’t do any good to think “I knew something about that wasn’t right” after it fails. And always remember, it is never okay for someone to treat you poorly and then say you are being too emotional or you shouldn’t take it personally when you push back on their behavior.
- Commit to having tough conversations when they are small. How often do we think something isn’t a big deal and let it slide only to have it snowball into something huge? Being able to say “I’m not okay with that” to the small things will keep them small and help women develop the skill to speak up in more difficult situations.
- Create clear expectations. Even Santa Claus gets a list. You can’t hold someone accountable to meet a need you never told them you have. If you need something, ask. If you expect people to just figure it out you have no one to blame for your disappointment but yourself.
- Know what success looks like to you. If you don’t know where you are going you will be easily sidetracked by the needs of others and are likely to end up somewhere you don’t want to be. Outline what success means to you. Really, on paper and everything.
The key to “leaning in” is being confident and able to clearly communicate our thoughts, ideas, needs, and yes, even feelings. Studies have shown that we have a leadership advantage because we are prone to listening to understand rather than just to respond. Now we must learn how to not to be so busy listening that we forget to respond and in doing so, rob the world of the positive difference we could be making by speaking up.
Dr. Robyn Odegaard (aka “Doc Robyn”) is a nationally known motivational speaker, executive wordsmith, and conflict resolution expert. As CEO of Champion Performance Development, she works with executives, professionals, athletes, coaches, parents, and faculty to help them achieve excellence in all aspects of life through the development of leadership, teamwork, effective communication, productive conflict and professional disagreement skills – strategies typically reserved for very high-level corporate executive training. She is the founder of the Stop The Drama! Campaign and author of the book Stop The Drama! The Ultimate Guide to Female Teams.