"I am a woman working in a male-dominated industry. In my appraisal this April, I got a very good rating for my performance, with appreciation for ability to handle difficult clients well and carrying my team forward through a period of churn and transition. And yet, I missed a promotion. In a conversation with my Manager I was told that I need to learn how to ‘kill’ and be more ‘tough’. The fact that I am collaborative and empathetic in the way I work were perceived as not sufficient for stepping into the next role. I was deemed as “not aggressive enough”. The person who was promoted instead, is a replica of my hard-charging manager.
"The senior leadership talks about inclusion and seems to believe in a wider definition of leadership that recognises the value of different styles of leading. How do I reconcile the two? More importantly, what should I do now?"
~ Name withheld
Interestingly I’m right now in the middle of a coaching assignment for another woman leader where we are working with the feedback that she is too ‘aggressive’. This is the classic bind that most women leaders face: either you are too soft or too aggressive to be a leader. Research traces the roots of this bind to the stereotypes of leadership and women that people hold: a leader has to be hard-nosed, alpha male, etc. and a woman has to be soft, accommodating, harmonious, etc.
Both these stereotypes are limiting for men and women in workplaces. And of course for organisations too!
Men lose out by conforming to the stereotype and not developing a wider repertoire of styles crucial to leadership. Empathy, relationship focus, collaboration are identified as leadership competencies of the future. Women lose out of leadership opportunities since they are hemmed into being ‘soft’ due to social expectations and penalised if they are assertive. The skewed leadership styles are perpetrated and get embedded into the DNA of the organisation, resulting in highly masculinised cultures, and (perhaps unintended) gender ratio skews.
I therefore note with optimism, that your senior leadership believes in a wider definition of leadership. However, for this intent to reap benefits, organisations have to consciously build an inclusive culture that embraces and leverages multiple leadership styles.
One method we recommend to organisations for creating inclusive workplaces that root out male/female stereotypes, is to apply the masculine and feminine dichotomy. Simply stated: Hi Masculine would be: forceful, assertive, competitive, dominant, decisive, task oriented, etc. And Hi Feminine would be: harmonious, collaborative, understanding, warm, approachable, relationship-oriented, etc. (I have found the former president of the National HRD Network, the late Udai Pareek’s framework, Androgyny Scale, useful for this. It is described in his book Training Instruments in HRD and OD.) And apply this framework to assess prevalent leadership styles at both organisational and individual levels. Is the organisation gendered? What is the leadership style of leaders in the organisation? Is there a skew? Is there an opportunity to change this to a more holistic style? What are the organisational systems that might be reinforcing this dichotomy?
I remember a workshop we facilitated for a banking major, where many men reported a high pressure to conform to a masculine style of leadership. There is much work to be done at an organisational level on enabling inclusive leadership styles, since a significant amount of research reveals that the feminine style of collaboration, relationship orientation and developing people has great value. (I have included two videos and an article on this at the end of this column.)
And now to your very relevant question on what you should do now:
a) Apply the masculine/feminine framework to your own leadership style
The Bem Sex Role Inventory is a free tool that you can check. I have been surprised to find in many coaching assignments that there is a tendency towards a skew, due to socialisation or other factors.
Shailaja, whom I had coached, was a valued leader in a BPO; and like you, scored high on empathy and collaboration. The project she was leading was internally focused with little interaction with clients. A high performer, she was lauded by her manager and team alike, with great engagement scores and consistent delivery. Due to some organisational changes as well as her own growth objectives, she was given a high visibility, client facing role. Her deliverables required her to do hard negotiations, stakeholder confrontations and hold a team of hard-nosed managers together.
Our initial conversations revealed her discomfort with confrontations and a tendency towards harmonising and avoiding conflict. To succeed in this role, she needed to build hitherto underdeveloped ‘masculine’ skills. Our coaching agenda was focused on building these masculine skills, besides surfacing and addressing the discomfort.
Reflect on your leadership style and whether it fits with your current role. Any competency is a strength, only if it is effective in the current context. And if you do find a skew, work with a coach to identify and integrate those competencies that are valuable for your role/growth into your own leadership style.
If you don’t find a skew and are sure you have a repertoire of competencies, you might want to ensure you are giving enough visibility to your ‘tough’ strengths.
b) Engage in a conversation with your manager
Ask them to break down the feedback (killer instinct or anything else) into behaviours. This might seem deceptively simple but isn’t. Ask questions like “what are some competencies of ‘being tough’ you would see as valuable for…..(fill in some of your critical KRAs)”; “Can you explain how ‘killer instinct’ manifests while dealing with….”
Ask for examples of empathy and collaboration not playing out as strengths. I remember in a pre-coaching meeting with the sponsor, who was the manager, he revealed that he would like to see Rekha, another person I coached, drive her team more. The team was tenured, with a sound understanding and experience of the project and business. He believed that given her loyal team and great bonding, Rekha could contribute much more to the current dynamic challenges (the organisation had then gone through a major M&A) by pushing her team to stretch. He was concerned that she was not leveraging her team’s strengths for the benefit of the organisation.
c) Align: Once you elicit details of the desired behaviours, assess alignment with your own
Are they in sync? In Rekha’s case above, continuous feedback and communication from all stakeholders enabled her to not only build additional competencies, but also be able to give her manager insight into how her strengths were playing out.
d) Blow your trumpet, authentically
Early on in my career one very successful executive shared this with me: “I do great work and after that I gently blow my trumpet into the ears of senior leaders.” I have never forgotten that advice.
Talk to your manager, not just about closing a deal, but also talk about the strengths you leveraged to close that deal. Share not just about how you got the team to pull together for a crisis, but also what the challenges were and how you persuaded them to pull together. And do this authentically.
It is your responsibility to ensure your manager is aware of your strengths and how they play out for achieving results.
e) Look for a mentor
Find a leader who you see leverages similar strengths as you and is successful. If there is one in your organisation that would be ideal; otherwise a trusted ex colleague/boss should also work.
Understand how he or she traverses a culture which seems highly masculine. See if you can integrate those in your behaviour repertoire.
Ultimately each one of us wants to feel valued for our strengths and contributions. These strengths and contributions are located in a system: Watch the leadership styles of leaders and their strengths, in your system. Do your strengths and leadership style fit? If you get constant feedback that your strengths are not valuable, or they are not leveraged well, you are not in the right place.
I bumped into a woman leader at a restaurant, recently. I barely recognised her from when I had met her in a workshop at an IT firm. There was a spring in her step and a radiance to her smile. She reported happily that she was now working for a product company where she felt valued and was doing great work!
If the stress is too much to fit into a system, I would urge you to find a system where your strengths are valued. Good luck!
1. The Athena Doctrine: Feminine Values are the Future (Play time: 13 mins)
2. Webinar: The Impact of Women Leaders (By Zenger Folkman. Play time: 49 mins)
3. Nice or Tough: Which Approach Engages Employees Most? By Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman | Harvard Business Review