Be Aggressive! B-E Aggressive… Right?
A new term has been floating around that describes a dilemma in which we PYPs sometimes find ourselves: “the backlash effect.” It’s a kind of paradox-to be successful, you must be assertive and confident, but if you are aggressive as a woman you are sometimes punished for behaving in ways that are contrary to the feminine stereotype. There is academic thought around the backlash avoidance phenom, and there is evidence that fear of backlash inhibits activation of a goal-focused, locomotive regulatory mode, which subsequently interferes with self-promotion success for women in a way that doesn’t affect men. So what about this ‘feminine stereotype’ do we need to know, or need to avoid? First comes Backlash: Frank Flynn, a business school professor now at Stanford, decided to try an experiment with one of his classes to investigate the perception of successful women versus men. He started with a Harvard Business School Case about Heidi Roizen, a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist. Changing “Heidi” to “Howard,” he created an alternative version of the case. Randomly distributing the two gendered versions, he asked his students to go online before class to rate their impressions of “Roizen.” Across the board, the students rated Heidi much harsher than they rated Howard, citing that they didn’t like her, they wouldn’t hire her, and they wouldn’t want to work with her – because she was aggressive. Moreover, “the more aggressive they thought she was, the more they hated her,” Flynn stated about the experiment. Although students believed Heidi to be just as competent, they found Heidi to be less humble, more power hungry, and more self-promoting than Howard. Clearly aggression alone isn’t the golden ticket to success in any workplace.
Passivity is a trademark of Backlash Avoidance: that when faced with an opportunity to self-promote, many of us PYPs find ourselves holding back our impulses to take credit for work we’ve done or accomplishments we value. At some point or another, we have all exhibited “feminine” stereotypes and socialization, casting ourselves as the nice girl, the nurturer, the rule follower, the morale booster. Yet, research shows that women who exhibit ultra-feminine traits are actually seen as less competent in traditional managerial settings. There is no evidence that “acting like a lady” does anything for a woman’s career other than make her well-liked. Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon studied salary differentials between men and women who did and did not negotiate their salaries. The finding was startling-even though she surveyed a cohort that was purely MBAs, only 7% of female candidates negotiated on the employer’s initial salary offer. 57% of their male counterparts negotiated their salaries. A little more aggression and a little less passivity would certainly help us PYPs get ahead here!
If being passive means doing too little, and being aggressive means risking negative backlash, being assertive is just right. Being assertive is more an exercise in balance than it is a stand-alone set of behaviors – the art of knowing when to be passive and when to be aggressive. Therefore, the key to being assertive is self monitoring. Another recent Stanford study found that the most successful women exhibit what they call “masculine” traits (aggression, confidence, and assertiveness), but know when to turn these traits on and off. Women who can adapt these characteristics and control their use have a powerful tool: they are chameleons who have mastered the ability to effectively assess and adapt to changing situations and social norms. Let’s take a few examples:
- In meetings, assertive women know when to listen and when to speak up. If you never say anything, you can’t add value. But answering every question or contributing your two cents to every topic dilutes your perspective.
- Assertive women are positive, but not too positive. You should always keep a positive outlook and tone, especially when communicating to superiors. But watch for the treacherous “pep overload” factor. Tone down the exclamation marks and emoticonage, and you’ll avoid the cheerleader pigeonhole.
- In emails, assertive women are direct and succinct. You need context, but probably not as much as you think you need. For formal communications, consider limiting the extra “friendly” text of “how is your family?” and “I’ve been working on XYZ project.” That said, don’t become the Terminator. Be warm! But don’t let it detract from the message.
- Assertive women consider the effects of a discussion on their teams as well as themeselves. Being the martyr and staying up until 4 am to finish a project so the rest of the team can enjoy their Thursday night won’t always get you ahead, but delegating everything risks making you appear cold-hearted. Don’t ever forget to think about your needs (and your health), but don’t get caught up thinking of nothing but yourself.
- In presentations, assertive women avoid diluting the message. Stay away from prefacing your opinions, making excuses for not knowing, and apologizing. Qualifiers can make you look weak; that said, sometimes a good qualifier is exactly what a conversation needs to keep you from looking like a complete know-it-all.
How does a PYP focus on mastering the art self-monitoring our way into being assertive? The best tips we can give you are to know your role, to understand how you are viewed, and to keep tabs on your reputation. Be aware of your words and how they are perceived. Just taking the time to think about how to modify your behavior based on your situation is an effective first step in self-monitoring. And fight the urge to sell yourself short!