I heard an NPR interview with a woman who has been organizing a high-end and classic auto show for over 30 years. She works with classic car enthusiasts and uber-wealthy clients who buy and sell millions of dollars worth of vehicles every year. At one point during the interview, she confessed that some men still won’t speak to her about their intended vehicle sales or purchases, instead demanding to speak to her husband. And she’s OK with this, she says, as long as she ultimately makes the sale. She goes on to say that her husband always chuckles and tells them, “At some point, you’ll have to speak to the boss.”
Is she a savvy businesswoman, making the sale in whatever way is necessary?
Is she perpetuating gender bias by ignoring overt misogyny?
Is she simply of a generation that truly thinks this behavior is fine?
I would argue she’s all of the above. And that’s what leaves me a bit queasy. What would happen if she refused to play the game? Women across all industries grapple with this same question. The difference lies only in how much we each have to lose when we decide to take a stand. In smaller organizations, standing up for ourselves can be tricky. We don’t have a big anonymous HR department that will receive our concerns confidentially. Small organizations can feel like families….with some of the same unspoken feelings, bickering and power dynamics. So how can women who work in smaller workplaces change negative dynamics and keep their jobs and reputations intact?
Here are some strategies that have worked for my clients:
1) Start with empathy
It sounds counterintuitive, but extending some empathy toward the persons or situations that are troubling you (even before you start talking) often leads to a good resolution. Here’s an example. A client of mine felt that her boss talked over her in meetings. It got to the point where she wouldn’t speak because she felt that it was not worth the effort. But not being able to share her ideas was really frustrating and she was considering leaving her job. We talked through some scenarios that started with honest empathy toward the boss. My client laid out some empathy-driven reasons why the boss would talk over her.
Maybe she thinks so fast that she just has to get her thoughts out?
Maybe she is building on my ideas without realizing that she’s interrupting me?
Maybe she is so excited about our work that she can’t wait to let me finish speaking?
You’ll notice that nowhere on this list is “Maybe she’s just a jerk?”
Starting with empathy helps us get past negative feelings and focus on the only thing we can control, which is our behavior.
2) Continue with confidence
Standing up for ourselves and working effectively with others takes confidence. We can build confidence with lots of practice. Maybe my client’s boss really is a jerk, but that doesn’t actually matter. What matters is how my client learned to be intentional in her own behavior and the confidence she built by doing this. My client chose to focus on pausing before speaking so that she was laser focused on the ideas she wanted to impart. Whenever her boss interrupted, my client would let her finish and continue her thoughts by saying something like, “to continue what I started to say just now……” Doing this repeatedly did two things for her. First, it helped her get her ideas out to the group instead of bottling them. Second, it cued the boss and the group that she was being constantly interrupted. After a few weeks of practicing her new techniques, the dynamic changed dramatically and my client was able to stay in her job and start to enjoy it!
3) End with clarity
It’s rarely simple to create behavior change in organizations. Some of my clients find it valuable to implement and “End With Clarity” exercise at the end of each day. One of them even does this while she cleans up her desk! Ending with clarity means going over some of the tension points of the day or the interactions that leave us feeling dissatisfied and looking honestly and clearly at what we could do differently tomorrow. It’s very easy to come home at the end of the day and gripe about what other people have done that was irritating or annoying. But taking some time to think about our own role in interactions can be incredibly powerful. This kind of exercise trains us to think and behave differently and to create different results.