I’m going to give it to you straight: You’re probably not being assertive enough at work. But don’t get down on yourself. It’s because you’re conditioned and discouraged not to be.
Just type “women” and “assertive” into a search engine and you’ll find one piece of research after the next showing that when women are assertive, it’s negatively perceived. This study from VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership company, shows when women are assertive or forceful at work, their perceived competency drops 35 percent, and worse, their perceived deserved compensation by over $15,000. In other words, you lose respect and money. (We should note: The same goes for men, but at lesser rates — 22 percent and about $6,500, respectively.)
Enter the age-old double standard: When men are assertive at work, they’re often seen as strong and confident leaders. But when women are assertive, they’re often seen as emotional or bossy b******. Or, as Ben Sorensen, an executive coach at Optimum Associates and recent guest on HerMoney, more nicely puts it — witches. Consequently, we feel the need to deliver our assertion in pretty packages, using watered-down language — or worse, not speak up at all.
“There are some real, unfair biases that are held against women that are not held for men, and it’s not right,” says Sorensen. “While we might not be able to completely level the playing field from this internal bias, we can at least give women some real, practical skills to really begin to level the playing field for themselves.” Here are seven strategies to try:
1. Less “we,” more “me.”
Research shows women use the word “we” more, while men use “me” more, says Sorensen. “This puts women at a real disadvantage, because what they’re doing is not claiming what is rightly theirs and the credit they rightly deserve.” And taking credit is not only important for your career, but for your organization, too (i.e. if the organization gives the wrong person new roles and responsibilities, it could backfire for everyone). Sorensen suggests incorporating more possessive pronouns into your statements, using a firm tone and a degree of deference: “My point of view is…” “My suggestion would be…” “Based on my experience…” And if you need to work up to this, start by blending with phrases like, “In working with the team, here’s what I’ve noticed…” And if (or when) you receive backlash, don’t back down. Women often think of others’ comfort levels before their own.
2. Stop at the red light.
In addition to taking credit, increase the likelihood of you being listened to (and taken seriously) by adhering to career coach Marty Nemko’s “Traffic Light Rule.” In short, you have about one minute to get your point across before you lose your audience. “During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light is green,” says Nemko. “People are not thinking you’re a blowhard, they’re paying attention and they’re not ready to interrupt you. During the next second 30 seconds, your light is yellow. That means they’re beginning to think, ‘Ah, when will this person shut up.’ At the 60-second mark, you usually better stop.”
3. Strike a “power pose.”
Your body language does most of the talking for you. (Some experts argue nonverbal communication comprises over 90 percent of all communication.) And it’s the backbone behind Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy’s famous TED talk on “power posing,” or how your body positioning not only influence others, but also your brain. Sorensen, who is familiar with Cuddy’s research, says a person’s level of confidence and her ability to articulate rises when striking a pose (e.g. standing with your feet hip-distance apart and your hands on your hips). Even better, new research from Melissa J. Williams WMB +2.60%, an assistant professor at Goizueta Business School at Emory University, shows that unlike verbal assertion, women aren’t penalized for assertive behavior expressed through nonverbal means (i.e. power posing or physical proximity to others). But when it comes to physical proximity, do be mindful of a person’s bubble. This form of assertion can backfire when violating someone’s personal space (which proxemics research says ranges from 1.5 to 4 feet), says Sorensen.
4. Be nicer to yourself.
That little voice inside your head can have a big impact on your confidence and performance, too. “I’d encourage women out there listening to not only strike the physical pose, but the mental pose,” adds Sorensen. “What we say to ourselves, or what’s called our self-talk, really matters and it’s interesting because our internal dialogue — right now I’m speaking about 120 words per minute — our internal dialogue is about 800 words per minute. We tend to be some of our greatest critics, and oftentimes women can be far more critical of themselves than men can be.” If you find your self-talk negative, focus instead on positive data points about yourself: that great rating on your last performance review, the fact that you (not your colleagues) were asked to present at the all-hands meeting, etc.
5. Contribute early in meetings.
Speaking of meetings, when or how often do you speak up in them? “This is oftentimes a real loss for women,” says Sorensen. “They under-contribute at meetings when meetings are high-visibility.” Instead, start coming prepared with one or two key points to bring upfront to stake a claim and show your expertise and ability. Start sitting next to the influencers in the room — the people who will be leading the discussion — or sit at the middle of the table.
6. Interrupt when necessary.
Williams’ research on nonverbal assertion also shows women aren’t penalized for paraverbal cues, like speaking loudly or interrupting, which, Sorensen says, is actually very important for women to do. His firm’s research on female executives shows that often when women make strong points in meetings, they’re either spoken over or interrupted. Then, five or 10 minutes later, someone else makes the same point — but maybe says it a little louder or a little more clearly — and gets the credit for it. Sorensen says the next time this happens to you, interrupt the conversation, complement the discussion and reiterate what you just shared. For example, “This is a great discussion, but before we move on, I just want to make sure my point that X… [was heard].”
7. Don’t lose your voice.
“As men increase in role and increase in responsibility in an organization, they tend to speak more,” says Sorensen. “Women, on the other hand, as they increase in role and increase in responsibility, they tend to flatline in terms of the amount they speak.” Don’t. Silence the negative self-talk and remember that you’ve risen through the ranks for a reason. “It’s important for you to share your perspective, challenge others and embrace conflict,” he says. “Because now, more than ever, not only are you shaping your career, but so many others’.”