Monday, June 23, 2014

How to Avoid Push-back as you Lean In

With the relatively recent release of Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, much has been made of the need for women to advance their careers by learning to lean in to the meeting room table.  This requires women to be more assertive about taking on new responsibilities and opportunities, seeking challenges and taking on more risks. The problem, most posit, is that women don't Lean In enough, that they don't assert themselves and demonstrate the leaderships qualities necessary to get ahead.

As much as I agree that this is an issue for many (women have long unconsciously adopted many behaviours that help them be liked by others that also rob them of leadership presence) there is an equally large barrier for women's advancement that Sandberg fails to give equal airtime to; the Push Back that many women experience when they do Lean In.

When women behave in confident and assertive ways (as a Leader) they often find that they receive Push Back from those around them. Stereotypes still prevail, where women are seen and expected to behave as the nurturers and people-pleasers.  However, Leaning In requires women to behave in ways that may contradict these expectations, behaving in slightly more 'masculine' ways, which isn't as expected and therefore not as accepted.  Thus, they get push-back from others, pushed to once again conform to the stereotypes.

This then forces women to either:

  1. Revert to stereotype, Leaning Back, not In 
  2. Lean In and preparing for the need to confront the Push Back that will follow, challenging stereotypes and the associated systemic discrimination it creates
  3. Learn to walk a tight-rope, balancing precariously between being seen as 'too' Feminine, and thus not strong enough to assume Leadership positions, or 'too' Masculine, and thus get labelled a 'bitch' and ostracized from Leadership roles.
If your goal is to get ahead, then option one does not do it for you since it merely keeps you where you're at. Option two, though a worthy cause, is more likely to help advance the careers of those that follow than it is to provide you with more opportunities.  This is not to say this is not a worthy fight but many of us lack the energy or desire to head off to battle each day.  Option three then is our best bet for getting ahead.  Once we're 'in' power, we can then work to change the systems that kept us down.

The challenge with balancing on that tight-rope successfully is that it is hard.  There are no guide-lines or guide-ropes to help us to remain on our precarious perch.  What works for one woman may not work equally well for another because each of us is unique.  Our physical structure, size, voice and personality all influence how others will see us and therefore shape the behaviours and approaches we need to maintain to allow us to Lean In without the Push Back.  

However, there are some key strategies that all women can adopt that will help as they step out on that tight-rope and begin to navigate their way across.
  • Don't confuse Assertiveness with Aggression.  While both may serve to clearly state your position, aggressive behaviour violates the rights/interests/position of others, while assertiveness does not.  Aggressiveness is stereotypically accepted as more of a masculine trait and will therefore tip you off that tightrope while assertiveness helps you to assume that leadership role without alienating others along the way.
  • Adopt Gender Neutral management and leadership basics such as Collaboration.  Although many may think of Collaborative behaviour as more feminine in style, don't mistake it for a bid to make everyone your friend.  Collaborative behaviour is inclusive, it seeks to involve others, but it doesn't preclude you from making the final decision.  Collaboration is not Consensus.  You can be both collaborative and decisive.
  • Don't Uptalk.  If you want to be seen as a Leader you must sound like a Leader.  Therefore, when giving voice to your thoughts and recommendations you must be able to share them in a straight-forward manner.  Injecting an upward inflection into your voice while delivering your thoughts simply serves to make you sound hesitant and unsure.  You'll sound 'nicer' but you won't sound like the leader you desire.  
  • Network with like-minded women.  Learn from the experiences of others, swap strategies, pick up new tips and techniques to try for yourself.  Others are going through the same struggles as you - don't feel that you need to face them on your own!  
  • Remind people why you're here and what you bring to the table.  Women can get caught up in making friends and making nice and forget that they need to be constantly positioning themselves. Sitting back and allowing your work to speak for you is not enough to give you the visibility that you need to get ahead.  You need not take on the braggart role, but you do need to learn how to brag. There is a continuum of bragging behaviour at your disposal.  Too far on the left tips you off the tightrope onto the feminine side of behaviour while too far on the right skews you too far to the masculine side.  Adopting a few more self promotional strategies. that are comfortable for you. will help you to stay a little more balanced and help you to gain greater visibility.  
Leaning In is all about getting ahead while the Push-back of others is all about keeping you down.  Learning to navigate the tight-rope between masculine and feminine behaviours is all about getting you ahead without activating anyone's stereotypes.  Leaning In without Push-back from others helps keep you from giving up and pushing back from the table.  After all, you have to be able to stay at the table to one day run the table.

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