Imagine you see a manager in a meeting, working with other managers. You already know this manager has been hired by your organisation and will soon become your peer.
You watch as your future colleague speaks up in a forceful way that borders on anger: “I’m not on board with the direction this decision is going.” Someone else tries to comment – the manager interrupts: “No, I’m not finished. I won’t back down from this position and I’m not going to commit my team and resources to this project until we have more conclusive evidence to work with. Period!”
It’s bold, brash, and it’s an emotional statement that doesn’t demonstrate much listening or patience. So, what do you think of your new colleague?
Observers who hear this interaction think less of their new colleague. There is a social backlash against people who voice this kind of strong disagreement. But it turns out the gender of the colleague is also hugely important. We discovered that women who disagree in forceful, assertive ways are judged more harshly than men who do the same.
Today’s workplaces cannot thrive if employees – regardless of gender – don’t speak up, so we need ways to decrease the social backlash people experience when they do. And, because women evidently suffer this backlash more than men, we especially need solutions that work for women.
Hazards of speaking up for women
People’s fear of speaking up is well founded. A survey of 87 whistle-blowers showed that all but one experienced retaliation when they aired their concerns. However, the usual punishment for simply speaking up and sharing what might be an unpopular opinion or thought is far more subtle and insidious.
People report seeing raised eyebrows, dismissive frowns and other evidence of disapproval. These signs of social backlash warn that the working relationship or career is at risk.
Speaking up in forceful, assertive ways is even more risky for women. A woman’s forcefulness is more likely to be seen as anger rather than strength.
This judgement costs women both prestige and influence. In fact, our research shows women’s perceived competency drops by 35 percent and their perceived worth by more than $15,000 when they are assertive or forceful.
Men who speak up equally aggressively were also judged, but to a much lesser degree. It just isn’t fair.
Read: Gender Discrimination In The Workplace
Skills for speaking up
So what can be done about it?
Eliminating bias altogether will require changing the cultural, legal, organisational and social influences that make it costly for employees – especially women – to speak up. It is long past time for robust efforts to be set in motion. If not acknowledged or managed well, emotional inequality and social backlash can adversely affect an individual’s career and can prove costly to an organisation’s effectiveness.
With the right skills, individuals and leaders can engage in and encourage candid discussion while minimising negative impacts. Our research shows that key skills can help a woman who is paying a regular price for being assertive to minimise the inequity. The skills work equally well for men – whose reputations are also somewhat damaged when they take strong positions – but they are even more efficacious for women.
Yes, it’s patently unfair that judgments on women are harsher. But as we wait for the larger business culture to change, those who choose to use the following tactics to express strong opinions can minimise social backlash.
Here are a few recommended actions:
Before stating your disagreement, frame your remarks. When you express a strong opinion, safety often breaks down because the listener may negatively interpret your intent. When this happens, communication suffers and you lose influence. So, frame your remarks to communicate both your intent and your message. Use one of two frames:
Behaviour Frame: The Behaviour Frame works by setting an expectation. It makes sure the statement that follows doesn’t come as a surprise. Without the frame, observers are blindsided by the force of the emotion and may assume the worst – that the person has lost his or her temper. The frame works by preventing this negative conclusion. It sounds like: “I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible.”
Value Frame: The Value Frame works by giving a positive reason for the emotion. In fact, it turns the emotion into a virtue by turning it into a measure of commitment to a shared value. It sounds like: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.”
Share your good intent: Quickly and clearly explain your positive intent before you share your strong opinion. It may also be useful to explicitly state what you do not intend. For example, “I came to speak with you to try to find the best way to solve our inability to match specs, I didn’t come here to finger-point or blame.”
Learn additional skills to create safety: High-stakes, emotional disagreements require special skills, but these are skills anyone can learn. Begin by reading a book, participating in a webinar, or taking a course.
There are many other excellent options as well. Regardless of what you choose, make sure to build in realistic practices, so you’ll learn how to use your skills under pressure.