If Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina spoke or behaved like Donald Trump, she would not have made it to the first round of debates. Despite progress for women in the workplace, the way in which women communicate and seek to influence continues to be judged by different standards than for men. Assertive men are rewarded with labels like "leader" and "confident." Assertive women are branded with labels like "bossy" or "bitchy". Women who avoid speaking up to get along well with others are ignored or overlooked for promotions. Neither "nice" nor assertive women is viewed as leadership material.
The Center for Creative Leadership's research found that even though women are twice as likely to be called bossy at work, they are not more likely to act bossy. The tighter tightrope women must walk in the office, boardroom, or courtroom is discouraging for women, making it harder to close the gender gap in the workplace, and continuing to challenge women's success in leadership positions. A 2015 study, Women in the Workplace, published by Lean In and McKinsey & Company reports that at the current pace women are advancing in the workplace, it will take 25 years to achieve gender parity at the senior vice president level and more than 100 years to achieve gender parity at the C suite level.
Many books have been written and initiatives started to encourage women to step up and take the lead in their organizations to narrow the leadership gap. For example, last year, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Condoleeza Rice, former Secretary of State, and Girlscout CEO, Ann Marie Chavez, started a "ban bossy" campaign to ban the word "bossy" on playgrounds to encourage strong girls to develop confidence and then grow up to become leaders.
Comedian, Tina Fey, encouraged women to embrace the B word by declaring "Bitch is the new black" during a Saturday Night Live skit about Hillary Clinton. Others have encouraged women to respond to the "B" word labels with confidence and authority. They advise women to get over it, rise above it, ignore it, and don't take it personally. In other words, "Suck it up and just do it."
Such well-meaning advice, however, did not sustain me for long as a managing partner of a law firm office, nor help me influence and persuade juries in the courtroom. The fact that the number of women who are in leadership roles is growing at a snails pace suggests that success as a leader in an organization, community, or in a courtroom requires more than encouragement.
To persuade and influence successfully, the "B" word, "balance" makes more sense. Balancing strength and style with specific strategies and tools can help women become strategically assertive and more effective communicators. The following seven can help women achieve this balance and improve the power of their message.
Self Awareness: Everything we do or don't do, say or don't say, sends a message. Whether a message is effectively communicated depends upon the subjective experience of the receiver so start by getting feedback about how you come across to others to identify blind spots and what needs adjustment.
Executive Presence: A leader with executive presence commands the attention of others, exudes confidence, and remains composed under pressure. Achieving executive presence requires strategic decisions about how you look, speak, and behave. To influence effectively, a leader must be truly present so it is important to be mindful of and avoid internal thoughts (what else you need to do today) and external distractions (cell phones).
Emotional Intelligence: Balancing strength and style requires awareness of one's own emotions, awareness of others' emotions, and using this information to adjust your message and style. Multi-Health Systems emotional intelligence model includes: self perception, self expression, decision making, interpersonal skills, and stress management. Each of these areas can be developed.
Listening Skills: Effective listening is an active process that can be achieved by being present and listening to learn so that you can tailor your message and develop rapport. Reflecting back to the speaker how they felt or paraphrasing what they said, known as reflective listening, helps others feel truly heard and understood. Additional strategies include: using eye contact, avoiding distractions, listening for what is not being said, and avoid interrupting.
When: Technology allows us to communicate anywhere and any time, but late night electronic communication to co-workers reflects poor self-control and a lack of boundaries. Be mindful of the impact that after hours communications have on others. With the exception of real emergencies, put after hours emails in the draft box and send during normal work hours.
Method: Whether you communicate in person, by telephone, or by email sends a message about you. Match the medium to the message. Avoid sending emails about emotional or sensitive matters; email is more appropriate for scheduling and delivering praise. When you are upset or frustrated, take your hands off the electronic device, walk away, and take a breath, even if you are only responding to someone else's email war. Flame mails send the wrong message about you and they last forever.
Content: Tailor the message to the audience and your goals. For strong messages, Dr. Lois Frankel, author of "See Jane Lead," recommends starting with a headline, following with three supporting points, and finishing with inclusive language.
Each of these steps is as important for men as women, but women pay a steeper price for communication mishaps. Accordingly, women can be more powerful by learning to balance strength and style. Being strategically assertive does not mean backing down. It means presenting what you believe in a way that others will hear, understand, trust, and respect. While the name-calling may not end, when women develop strategies to balance strength and style to communicate strategically and effectively, women can minimize the B word labels and shape culture in the workplace about what effective leadership looks like.