This topic contains 14 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by Kim Scott 2 years, 11 months ago.
March 8, 2016 at 4:29 pm #131
My advice for managers, male or female, when giving “you’re aggressive/abrasive” feedback to a woman, and also for women getting that sort of feedback, is to SLOW DOWN and get an outside perspective. This is a classic case where thinking fast, to borrow Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, may trip you up.
If you are in either situation–giving some criticism to a woman for being “too aggressive” or having just gotten that sort of criticism–post your thoughts about the situation below to get reactions from other readers.
Meanwhile, here are some of my thoughts…
Feedback from women often gets labeled as abrasive or in some other way that puts it in the obnoxious aggression quadrant–not because it really was obnoxiously aggressive, but because of gender bias. This is the “abrasive” trap.
Kieran Snyder applied linguistic analysis to performance reviews, and she found that when women challenge people (men or women) directly — which they must do to be successful — they get penalized for being “abrasive.” To be clear, this abrasive label gets placed on women by other women as well as by men.
Snyder wrote an article about her findings for Fortune, which sparked some of the longest, most impassioned email threads I’ve ever seen at several companies that I advise. Another story on Snyder’s research was Fast Company’s #1 leadership article of 2014. Why did this article strike such a nerve? Every professional woman I know has many, many stories of being called some version of “abrasive,” or of being disliked for being too aggressive — and of paying the price professionally.
Let’s examine an abstract case, and show why the “abrasive” label holds women back and contributes to fewer female leaders, even in organizations that start out with a 50-50 gender balance. Take Snyder’s example of two colleagues who perform at the same high level:
“Jessica is really talented, but I wish she’d be less abrasive. She comes on too strong.”
“Steve is an easy case, smart and great to work with. He needs to learn to be a little more patient, but who doesn’t?”
These comments will translate to ratings, and the ratings will affect promotions. Let’s assume that Jessica gets a slightly lower rating than Steve as a result of her so-called “abrasiveness.” Not such a big deal in a given quarter, perhaps. But a series of lower ratings will eventually cost Jessica a promotion. And even if the ratings aren’t lower, selection for promotion and leadership roles depend on “likeability.”
How significant is this, really? When this kind of bias plays out over a whole organization, the impact on female leadership is profound. Researchers ran a simulation of what happens to promotions over the course of several years when bias impacts ratings just a little bit. When gender bias accounts for just 5% of the difference in performance ratings, an organization that starts out with 58% of the entry level positions filled by women winds up with only 29% of the leadership positions filled by women.
Of course, that’s only part of the story. Let’s look at what happens to Jessica personally over the course of her career, not just the leadership composition of her company. If she’s early in her career, she’ll probably get promoted eventually despite her alleged “abrasiveness,” but now she’s a year or so “behind” Steve. Fast forward another 5 to 7 years. Now Steve is two levels ahead of Jessica. Since pay increases steeply with each promotion, he may be getting paid a lot more Jessica is paid. If Steve and Jessica are married, and they have a child, guess whose career is more important for family income, and who’s more likely to stay home from work when the baby is sick?
But that’s not even the worst-case scenario for Jessica. Let’s imagine that Jessica takes the “abrasive” feedback to heart and quits challenging directly. She adjusts her behavior so that she is less effective at work. Instead of being “radically candid,” her feedback is always “ruinously empathetic” or “manipulatively insincere.” This makes her less effective as a leader. So now, in addition to gender bias, there are real performance issues to contend with. In this case, Jessica is never going to get ahead. Frustrated beyond measure and feeling that she must choose between being liked and being successful, she decides that this is not a game worth playing, and quits.
Some version of this has happened to literally every professional woman I know.
As a woman, it can be hard to know when you’re being accused of obnoxious aggression because of gender bias/the abrasive trap and need to simply put on your thick skin suit and power through, versus when you are legitimately being obnoxiously aggressive and need to tone it down. I personally have struggled with this my whole career. And I have to imagine that it would be hard for a man to give me advice about my style without fearing he’s about to step on a landmine.
The goal of this forum is to address the situation by giving folks a better basis for attributions and ways to be more effective.
Things to think about when telling a woman she is “too aggressive.”
Before you give feedback like that, try these things to make sure you’re not falling into the competence/likeability trap:
- Switch genders. If the woman were a man who did the exact same thing, would the criticism “you’re too aggressive” turn into “you really know how to get things done?” Really imagine a man on your team doing exactly the same thing the woman did. Now, how would you react? If you’d react differently, you’re about to fall into the trap.
- Language matters. Notice the words you use. Do you use words like “abrasive” “shrill” “screechy” or “bossy” that are rarely used to describe a man? If so, you may be about to fall into the trap.
- Don’t just say “be more likeable.” Make sure you address the situation by giving folks a better basis for attributions and ways to be more effective. Gender bias is a fact of life – and it’s your job as the boss not just to advise women how to navigate around it, but also to come down hard on the bias, and to create a more just working environment where the bias doesn’t affect a woman’s career.
Things to think about if you’re a woman who’s been told you’re “too aggressive.”
Before you react to feedback that you’re too aggressive/abrasive/etc, consider the following four rules of thumb:
- Never stop challenging directly: Too often the advice to women who are perceived as abrasive (or worse) is to stop challenging directly. This is always the wrong answer. You must do that to be successful.
- Don’t put an undue burden on yourself: Too often, in order to move up on the “care personally” axis, women expend too much energy picking up the “office housework,” or otherwise being “the angel in the office,” to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. Self-abnegation is never an effective way to show you care.
- The competence/likeability research has NOT concluded that you weren’t out of line: Having said that, you may still have been obnoxious. Don’t be the angel in the office, but be open to the possibility you just may have hurt somebody unnecessarily.
- Just because it’s wrong to kiss up and kick down doesn’t mean it’s right to do the opposite: I have coached many, many women who are radically candid with their teams, but obnoxiously aggressive with their bosses. I don’t have any research to show that this is more common for women than for men, but it’s been pronounced enough in my personal experience that I mention it here.
Post your thoughts or your story below to ask me and other readers for our take.
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