November 10, 2014
How to Claim Your Rightful Place in a World That Calls You Aggressive
Every time I present to a predominantly female audience, one brave woman raises her hand and says, “People call me aggressive or the b-word. How else am I supposed to get my job done?” The floodgates open and the questions come in…such as:
Countless books and women’s magazine articles have wrestled with the competitive woman phenomenon. In general, you’re asked to love her, tame her, or “just be nice.”
NONE of these approaches address the core issue.
Thus, wrestling with the issue is a strategic—not necessarily behavioral—challenge. Meaning, yes–all of you competitive women out there might not need to become less aggressive.
According to Joel Deluca’s book Political Savvy, the top 5% of leaders in large multinational organizations have three times the network of everyone else. When attempting to influence and lead, they energize their network systematically, yet informally. And, the wider the network, the less likely people will make false negative judgments about you. This is especially true for women in male-dominated fields.
But the corollary also applies: Those who act boldly or seek perfection before they’ve built the necessary support structure are likely to tumble.
The Problem with Perfectionism and the New Strategy – Collaborative Competition™
What’s a girl to do?
Women executives hired to lead new initiatives or fix problems often assume they have the support of the senior leadership, act as if they have a wide network of trusted relationships, and move without any analysis, when that support may not be in place yet. But then they appear overly aggressive! And a senior leader says, “This woman is a problem and needs a coach!”
To succeed, you must come across as competent both task-wise and in building relationships with other team members—able to delegate, willing to engage emotionally, capable of going beyond your comfort zone—and laying firm groundwork for your own success while the rest of your team still feels valued and appreciated.
These two seemingly conflicting needs—to build supportive relationships AND to achieve perfection—have to be balanced. If the balance swings too far either in the direction of doormat or aggressive, you lower your chances for success.
For instance, if you push your agenda directly onto a high executive with whom you haven’t formed a strong alliance, this executive will be less likely to support your initiative even if it is a good idea. In fact, women who are seen as closely identified with traditionally masculine leadership traits (direct, authoritative, and aggressive) and don’t use their traditional feminine leadership traits (collaborative, approachable, emotionally expressive) were found to be the weakest of 45 women executives in a recent study by the Hay Group.
Becoming a Collaborative Competitor means that you are aiming to stretch yourself and strive for excellence which could look like:
I interviewed about 40 women in highly competitive professions in the US and Canada. According to my research, women who rate themselves as happy and successful are skilled in Collaborative Competition™. They understand that striving for perfection or doing “whatever it takes” might not be the best approach. They focus on figuring out the best way to get the tasks done. And the key is that all these women enjoyed the challenges.
Use this strategy: Analyze the situation, the players, and the impact of your actions–on others, your reputation, and your results—BEFORE taking action.
This is the opposite of perfectionism. It involves accepting that informal networks become more powerful as you get more responsibility, and that the path to the top is not like studying hard to get that “A.” In other words, take a roundabout approach based on your analysis of the constantly shifting power dynamics.
For example, I am coaching a young lawyer we will call Beth, who is being groomed for a General Counsel role. She felt frustrated that every time she asserted her views, she perceived that her male colleagues viewed her as too aggressive and not a good team player. This began to change as she started observing and identifying approaches to build stronger relationships with them. One male colleague in particular would constantly give her a hard time on her legal comments; she would turn aggressive and confront him. As Beth began observing her annoying male colleague, she realized that he was less annoying when they met informally one-on-one, when she asked open-ended questions, and when she listened first before jumping into her legalese. These small changes in Beth’s behavior built a stronger relationship. Thus, he caused her less aggravation and consumed less of her time—and she was able to stop hooking into his behavior and turning into a shrew.
Beth’s experience demonstrates that you can look for opportunities to let others understand that you can all work together without running roughshod over people’s feelings. You don’t have to chase elusive perfection—and actually, more can get done if everyone backs off a bit. This might mean using a lighthearted touch, such as complimenting people or sharing a humorous anecdote from the weekend.
This new strategy involves accepting women’s greatest strengths as both strong collaborators and relationship builders. Recent research on women and leadership in the 21st century finds that women’s natural tendency towards collaboration is more effective.
With Collaborative Competition™, women can develop the mindset to thrive in and enjoy a competitive environment, to become self-challengers instead of perfectionists, and to work strategically to help build the relationships we need to succeed.
And best of all, we can kiss those icky labels goodbye. No more doormat or dominator!
Tips for Practicing Collaborative Competition and Strategies to Avoid the Aggressive Label
For more business insights and strategies, sign up for our free newsletter.