You’re in an executive meeting. The guy to your left stands, pounds his fist on the table and barks about whatever he thinks matters. “He’s so passionate about our business!” somebody comments, almost in awe. The next guy, the one across the table, adds his two cents, nearly shouting in disagreement. And the boss steps in to temper the team. “No need to be so aggressive,” he says, chuckling with a wink.
Now it’s your turn. You don’t agree with one of the initiatives for the upcoming quarter. So you speak up—just as equally passionate and aggressive as your male colleagues. But what you hear in response is something along the lines of: “No need to get so emotional,” and in the hallway, someone whispers, “She’s so bitchy.”
Can you picture it? I bet you can. Have you lived it? Chances are, you have—or something like it. I’ve seen this double standard in every company, in every boardroom, in every department: When females speak and behave in similar fashion to their male counterparts, rather than earning equal accolades and praise, they often incur just the opposite. “Boys will be boys,” as they say, but women can’t seem to win, dismissed as a girl or shunned because of perceived “sharp elbows.”
So if you (through likely no fault of your own) are one of these women being perceived as “rough around the edges,” what are you to do?
Well, in this girl’s opinion, when we’re called emotional, bitchy, or [fill in the offensive blank], what we’re really being told is, “I’m feeling threatened.” It’s not fair, but it’s true. So, if you feel like you’re in this situation—my advice is to engage in a bit of “spit and polish:” Recognize what is and make some subtle changes that will work to your advantage. Here’s how.
1. Don’t Be Aggressive, Be Assertive
Aggressive is defined as being ready or likely to attack, while assertive is defined as showing a confident and forceful personality. When you’re assertive, you are authoritative, you look people in the eye at their level, you use a respectful tone, and you calmly make declarative statements. You use a tone that’s caring and non-destructive, not one that’s dictatorial and “my way or the highway.”
Basically, you bring the threat level down. Try it—no matter what tone everyone else is using—and you just might find that your point comes across even stronger.
2. Don't Speak First, Play Piggyback
People generally like to hear themselves talk. So let them. And when you have something to say, say it—but do so by piggybacking on what your colleagues just said. Use their words to get your own point across.
Say you feel strongly about the ever-increasing budget of a project. Instead of fighting to get your message across as soon as possible, try listening first, then chiming in when it makes sense, with something like, “Steve, I’m really glad you brought up your concerns about the project’s delivery dates. I’m concerned about that, too, especially for the financial implications.”
3. Don’t Disagree, Agree (Even When You Really Don’t)
I know, I know. Sounds like a bad policy, doesn’t it? But hear me out: Everything anyone says will include something you will agree with. True, that something may be the fact that it’s English being spoken, but that doesn’t matter. Always start out by agreeing, and then further your message by focusing on how that agreement equates to what you actually want to push forward.
For example, “Bob, I agree with you that our highest priority is increasing sales leads right now. And I think you’ll agree that in Q4 we didn’t quite deliver, which is why I’m suggesting we move forward doing it this way… ”
4. Don’t Make Statements, Ask Questions
The person who asks the questions holds the power. How? She directs the conversation along without having to actually disagree with anyone. Next time someone says something you want to push back on, piggyback, agree, and redirect with a question: “So Charlie, when you said earlier that we cut the advertising budget by 30%—what are your thoughts on how to achieve our customer acquisition goals?”
One simple, harmless question, and you’ve gotten your point across without having to disagree with anyone.
Is it fair that men and women are perceived differently in the workplace for doing and saying exactly the same things? Not at all. But do I see it happen all the time? Absolutely. And when you find yourself in this situation—when speaking your mind is going to get you nowhere—the best thing you can do is what you do so well in any other business setting: Know what you’re working with and play the game accordingly.