The Space Between Doormat and Dominator

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:

  • How can I avoid being called aggressive or the b-word?
  • How can I deal with highly competitive women?
  • How can I act in an aggressive and competitive way but not be viewed in a negative manner?

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:

  • Staying ahead of the curve in your chosen field
  • Building a supportive and strategic network
  • Enjoying the challenge of learning from mistakes

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

  • Remember that aggressive behavior is a strategic and not necessarily a behavioral problem
  • Adopt the self-challenger mindset–welcome challenges!
  • Practice learning to accept yourself (and others) even if you don’t perform perfectly all the time
  • Seek out activities that you would like to try if you wouldn’t worry about losing or looking foolish, such as a hobby or exercise
  • Once you get comfortable taking non-threatening actions, you can move on and make setting stretch goals second nature.   Stretch goals can range from making a conscious effort to expand your network, to learning a new skill, to getting involved in a new project.
  • Clarify the critical 15 to 25 people with whom you spend your time—and for each, identify one or two personal or professional agendas that drive their actions
  • Increase the amount of time you spend listening and making “relationship deposits” (such as giving them compliments or sharing information) with your key people, starting with the easiest or highest-trust people
  • Ask one or two people you trust in your network where people perceive you on the aggressive scale–do they think you have been labeled?
  • If you think you have been labeled aggressive, set up benchmarks to measure; you will know that the aggressive label has been lessened when key people start sharing more information, you hear fewer negative rumors about yourself, you see colleagues asking you for help, you find yourself raising your voice less often, etc.
  • If you don’t think you have been labeled aggressive, your trusted colleagues can still give you very useful feedback about how you welcome and respond to challenges, and how you can strive to become more comfortable when challenged.

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About The Author

KATHRYN MAYER is President & Founder of KC Mayer Consulting, Inc., a strategic leadership coaching firm. Ms. Mayer has been a leadership professional for twenty years and she currently leads workshops and does executive coaching work with a special focus on women in competitive businesses. Her perspective on leadership is shaped by her experience as a woman in competitive sports and in competitive corporate environments where she has worked for over fifteen years including ten years in investment banking. She is the author of Collaborative Competition™: A Woman’s Guide to Succeeding by Competing, which can be ordered on Kathryn Mayer can be reached at or 917-846-6694.

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