How Do You 'Lean In' When You Feel Unwelcome?

"It's not easy to lean in when you're unwelcome and resented."
- Female head of HR at a Fortune 500 company

Since the release of Sheryl Sandberg's runaway bestseller, Lean In, there has been a groundswell movement to encourage women to do just that. I have discussed this with many women I know and many share with me that they are finding that easier said than done.

Some have shared with me that it's not so easy leaning in when you feel unwelcome, resented and sometimes, at best, tolerated. One woman told me that she doesn't want to act like the "b" word, but finds that when she meets with men in her company, just her anticipation of their unwelcoming presence, arms crossed, looking up at the ceiling almost mockingly causes her to feel on-guard, a little brittle and for her voice to become a little pitchy (that's "p," not "b").

In my work with companies and law and accounting firms -- especially ones in which the men far outnumber the women -- I have observed some of what that woman described.

Sometimes, the awkwardness in the room seems to be a case of the "chicken and the egg," i.e., is it the woman anticipating a negative reaction from men that causes her to be uptight? Or is it her becoming uptight that causes the men to feel accused of being negative towards her, even before they say anything?

One thing I know for sure is that underneath most hostility, resentment or unwelcoming attitudes is fear.

So, what is it that the women may be afraid of and what is it that the men may be afraid of that is causing their uptight or nasty behavior on the surface?

One common thing that I see going on is that, sadly, many men appear to have a tendency to act more from a place of ego and are prone to posturing a fair amount, especially when they are feeling insecure. Men also often have a habit of trying to puff themselves up, possibly because they are actually feeling small inside. And this is something that most men don't want to be called out on.

In fact, one of the reason many men don't like to bring their wives to a number of business-related events is that they believe their wives can see through that puffery, not particularly like it and will look at them with a disapproving look. A number of men have told me that they feel that their wives might blow their cover when the man is trying to come off as confident and self-assured.

One man was very articulate about the awkwardness he felt when bringing his wife to work events, a woman he loved greatly (and I don't think it was a case of "the man doth protest too much"). He told me, "When I am with my wife, I know when I'm bullsh*ting, she knows when I am bullsh*ting and I know that she knows when I am bullsh*ting. All of that makes for my feeling inhibited around her when I am trying to promote an air of confidence to other people."

One wife told me that she didn't mind her husband acting with confidence. What she couldn't stand is when he started acting like a know-it-all bore, who couldn't take a hint when people had heard enough from him. She told me that she felt both embarrassed for him and with him. And what made it worse was how thin-skinned he was when she tried to "delicately" point it out to him afterwards. Nevertheless, she also declared how much she loved her husband (and again, I will plead it not being a case of "the lady doth protesting too much").

So, if the above is a common phenomenon, is it possible that men are transferring the feelings they might have towards a wife or even a mother onto the women they are dealing with at work and that they are unconscious of this, but nevertheless acting resentful towards the women at work because of it?

And is it possible that because the men are acting this way and unaware of it, that the women are fearful that the deck is stacked against them before they even get a word out?

What do you think?

And what are your suggestions on how women and men can both lean in with confidence to make the exchanges between them energetic, synergistic and helpful to the organization that they are both a part of?