“The minute I express my opinion clearly, I get labeled as aggressive.” This may be the most recurrent refrain I hear from the women leaders I coach. They report that if they hold back or are soft-spoken, they get run over in conversations. Yet if they come forward with strength, they get tattooed with what I call the “Scarlet B” (as in ‘bitch’).
There’s no doubt that organizations tolerate more forcefulness from men than from women, so women often have to operate in a much narrower stylistic swath. At the same time, something has nagged at me about these clients’ stories. In each of their organizations, I can name other women leaders who are successful and influential who have escaped the “aggressive” label. And many of the women that I’ve coached do, indeed, have quite a sharp edge. So while I fully acknowledge that organizations are often intolerant of strength in women, I don’t believe that it’s impossible for a woman to be both strong and avoid the Scarlet B tattoo.
The Issue Is Not Whether You’re Coming Across With Strength – It’s The Kind Of Strength You’re Coming Across With
There is an important distinction between assertiveness and aggression. The word “assertive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to join,” while “aggressive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to attack.” Assertion stands its ground, like a mountain or tree. It has a full and present quality that is based on your intention to make real contact with yourself and others. Aggressiveness, on the other hand, has a forward-leaning, ‘coming at’ quality, and often reflects a loss of interrelatedness. In women, there can be a sharpness or shrillness to the voice that often belies an underlying energy of anger, frustration, powerlessness or fear. If left unmanaged or ungrounded, those emotions can give our communication a spear-like quality.
Unfortunately, because organizations tolerate more spears from men than from women, women need to take extra care that their communications are balanced and effective. The bad news is that women carry an extra burden to be skillful in their leadership communication. But the good news is that that forces us into a style that research has proven to be most effective for leaders in general, regardless of gender.
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