A couple of weeks back, I saw a post by Bonnie Marcus on Forbes in which she described the ways in which women give away their power.This is pretty familiar terrain, and certainly something that working women have been grappling with for as long as there’ve been working women.
As I look back on my experiences in technology companies, where I was – depending on the size of the company – either in upper-mid-level management or senior management, I find it an interesting and realistic list. Even if it’s a bit disheartening to read that issues haven’t changed over a generation. (I date the start of my “serious” professional career to 1981, when I graduated from business school. I worked in corporate settings until 2004, and have been freelancing since.)
Here’s the Marcus list on the ways in which women de-power themselves, (Her categories are in bold; all indented material is from Marcus.)
The use of minimizing language
Twenty years ago, give or take a few years, I read that women needed to stop saying “I think” and “I feel”, and replace these words with “I know.” I used to argue that my “think” was as good as some guy’s “I know”, but I finally had to acknowledge that, when you have a seat at the table – especially if you’re the only woman there - “know” trumped “think.” Today’s advice – from Jerry Weissman – gussies things up a bit. “I’m confident,” I’m convinced,” “I expect” should replace think/believe/feel. I don’t see that “I expect” is any more powerful than “I think”, but I kind of wish I’d tossed in a bit more of “I’m confident” and “I’m convinced.” Especially I’m confident. Like it.
Marcus herself recommends that we excise the word “just”.
I’m not convinced about this one. I do a lot of “just wanted to check” emails when I want to move someone along on a project or a payment. It generally works, without being accusatory or confrontational. Maybe it’s the difference between working in corporate, where you actually may want power, and working freelance, where you just want projects and payments.
Power, apparently, means never having to say you’re sorry. Or almost never.
Saying you’re sorry unnecessarily puts you in a subservient position. Women’s tendency to apologize and, in fact over apologize, is another subtle way we give our power away.
Even though I’m a generally non-confrontational person who doesn’t exactly thrive on conflict, I actually don’t remember all that much apologizing during my career. What sticks out is apologizing to the mega-polite, WASP-y gentile president of our company for having called him an asshole. His response was perfect – and perfectly him: “I wasn’t aware that you had.”
Other than that, I did notice that women – self included – were much more likely to admit that we’d screwed something up than men were. We’d have these project post-mortems or root cause analyses of problems and, as often as not, I was the only one to put on the table the things that I could have done better. Guess I was giving away power. And those ingrates never once thanked me for it.
Letting others take credit for ideas
After years of being galled when someone (male) would raise a point that I’d already made, and get the credit and praise for it, I started saying, “Thanks, Joe Blow, for supporting my point.” According to Marcus, I was doing the right thing:
When we stay silent and let others take credit for our ideas, we give our power away. I coach my clients to take back the credit. “Thank you for bringing up this idea that I proposed earlier.” Make a statement that will remind the attendees of your ownership of the idea.
I’ve got the power! (Or did have it, back in the day.)
Anyway, as I’ve said many times – and written here just the other day – A woman’s voice is like a dog whistle. Only some ears are attuned to hearing it.
The hesitancy to self-promote
For a while, I would wait around for someone to notice my brilliance and competence. Then I figured two things out. Sometimes, in order to get ahead, you just have to step up and say “I’ll do it.” And sometimes you just have to outright self-promote. Which is how I got to be a VP in small Company A, and almost got to be a VP in large Company B. (In large Company B, when I broached the subject of VP-hood with the CMO, he said, “If you want to be a VP, I’ll make you a VP.” Then I thought about it in the context of this particular company, and decided that I’d rather have people asking why I wasn’t a VP than asking why I was. Turned out to be the right move. Sometimes personal authority/power is better than positional authority/power.)
Not understanding or using our influence
Based on my experience, this is good advice:
Offering to help others achieve their goals creates credibility that results in influence. Volunteering for special projects at work highlights our competence and influence.
Not leveraging relationships
Somewhere along the line, I figured this one out, although oddly the clearest example of my using it was when I wanted to get on the lay-off list at Company B. We were nearing a major lay-off, and I’d pretty much had it. Trouble was, the company had recently sent a group of VP’s and Directors off to a pricey one-week mini-MBA at Babson. We were supposed to come up with a plan for saving the company – hah – but whether that was going to happen or not, the president had apparently declared that no one on the Babson list could be pink slipped. I leveraged my relationships with all the more-senior folks I could think of, working like mad to get on the list. I made it. Then, oddly, on lay off day, no one bothered to lay me off – my manager was dealing with people who were crushed by getting their walking papers – so I left my laptop and Palm Pilot on my desk and just sort of walked away. One of the best career decisions I ever made!
Being reactive not proactive
Hard to argue this one.
A lack of allies and champions
Well, this seems to overlap with leveraging relationships, but, hey, I’m too lazy to re-read these sections to see if I can determine the differences.
I’ll just say that, as anyone who’s worked in an organization for more than four hours knows, you need a network in order to survive. I always focused on network-building with people I actually liked and/or respected. Bogus networks based on ass-kissing, short term alliances that were nothing more than conniving power-grabs – way too cunning and Machiavellian for my liking.
A desire to be liked
For better or for worse, I like to be liked and, gosh-golly, without going all Sally Fields here, this has stood me in excellent stead throughout my career. I did well in the corporate world because, for the most part, people liked me.I get my freelance gigs because people enjoy working with me. But I also figured out that I was not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, and that there were going to be plenty of times when I was going to have to be unliked. And I was, by Nick B. and that red-headed woman in sales (Joan something?). By Steve P. By Bernie L. And guess what? I didn’t like them much, either.
As Marcus notes,
Power comes from: being nice, effective, and powerful.
I wouldn’t exactly say that reading the article made me miss my old corporate power-play days. But it was fun thinking about them.