We really haven’t come that far, fellow females.
Not when recent polls show too many women in business — whether by their own fault or by their being mislabeled — are still being perceived as too gruff, too assertive, too downright mean when they’re in positions of authority.
When Lawrence Polsky wrote an article about “bitchy bosses” earlier this year, he garnered hundreds of responses, clearly touched a nerve and sparked a nationwide conversation about why women leaders are perceived differently than men, according to one release I read about the article .
“Ninety percent of the leaders I have coached over the past 20 years [have been] women,” says Polsky, managing partner at the Princeton, N.J.-based global consulting firm PeopleNRG.com. “I have found the reason they are called bitchy or some version of that, by their team or colleagues, comes down to one thing: the perception of being ‘too’ assertive. It can also be a way for employees to undermine a woman leader they don’t like or are jealous of.”
Polsky followed his article up by polling 221 professionals on their perceptions of the article for a survey he appropriately titled “Bitchy Bosses” as well.
That poll found:
- 76 percent of women reported having a “bitchy boss” in the past, compared to 64 percent of men;
- 89 percent said it reduced team productivity;
- 87 percent said they or someone on their team left their job because of it;
- 79 percent said it made them less motivated to do a good job;
- 62 percent of men said they were lied to by the boss, compared to 52 percent of women;
- 36 percent told human resources about the problem, yet only 10 percent said HR did anything to help the situation; and
- 15 percent called in an outside consultant, and of those, 79 percent said that didn’t help.
A recent post on this blog by Senior Editor Andrew McIlvaine supports this notion that we have a problem out there, women. His post describes, as one linguist uncovered through her research, “what seems to be a powerful bias against women who are seen as ‘too assertive’ in the workplace — and the bias seems prevalent regardless of whether the review was conducted by a man or a woman.
That research, which surveyed 248 performance reviews from 28 companies, showed women received much more critical feedback than men did. (About 59 percent of men’s reviews included critical feedback, while nearly 88 percent of women’s did.)
Some of the criticisms against women written in the reviews included: “Stop being so judgmental” and “You can come across as abrasive sometimes.” In fact, the linguist found the word “abrasive” was used 17 times to describe 13 different women, but the word never appeared in men’s reviews. (McIlvaine’s post also includes a link to an HRE piece addressing this.)
More recently, in her October column addressing the scuffle caused by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s comments on women’s pay, Susan R. Meisinger, our HR Leadership columnist, acknowledges this double standard in how we come across affects pay as well.
“Some women aren’t comfortable asking for more money,” she writes, “because they fear it will adversely impact how they are perceived. The fear may be valid: Research shows that both male and female managers are less likely to want to work with women who negotiate during a job interview, since women who press for higher pay are considered pushy.”
Boy, we really can’t win for losing, can we?
Of special concern to Polsky, from the research he did, is that HR doesn’t appear to be all that effective in mitigating the perception problem, at least as it concerns female bosses. What this means, in his estimation, is that:
“HR cannot rely on hearing about a bitchy boss from employees but must be proactive to discover if the problem exists. [HR leaders] need to look for clues, such as a leader complaining to HR: ‘The people on my team are not stepping up to the plate.’ Another sign is if you sit in team meetings and many team members are very quiet. Both are clues that there is no space for the team to contribute. This points to the fact that either the leader hasn’t built trust or is eroding it.”
He offers these tips for dealing with this issue (as well as how he gave them to me below). If HR does hear about this type of behavior in a female manager or leader:
Encourage employees to talk directly to the boss. Direct feedback is the most helpful for leaders to understand the impact they are having. Our research showed 43 percent of people spoke to their troublesome boss about the problem and about one in five said it helped improve the situation.
If more than one person brings it up, then they need feedback. This needs to come from their manager, not HR. Why? If they are to turn this around, it could get messy before it gets better. They need their manager on their side through the process, to make them aware of the perception problem. Often, these leaders are not aware of how they are being perceived. Their manager needs to discuss the situation with them.
Oftentimes, the team and the leader need support to move through this problem. The leader needs help pulling back and being less aggressive while the team needs help being more assertive. Most of the times I have been involved, the team needed to learn to be more assertive to push back on an overly assertive leader’s aggressive communication. What often gets forgotten, and what we always do, is help the team go through a process of open, honest dialogue with the leaders. This creates healing and forgiveness. Employees will forgive and move forward if they believe the leader is sorry and will change.
If the leaders do not change, after six months of coaching and support from HR and/or a qualified coach, then they need to be moved to a different position where they can thrive or be removed from their job.
Also, overlook it, he says, if it’s a one-off. If there is only one person complaining, make sure this is not an employee with an axe to grind. Check into it. “I have seen where an employee with an axe to grind gave anonymous feedback to make the leader look bad,” Polsky says.
Also overlook it if the female leader has been charged with implementing a new vision/strategy/approach. “Employees,” he says, “might be complaining because the leader is pushing them more than the previous manager/leader/situation required.”
This notion kind of feeds into a piece by Mark McGraw, posted here earlier this month, suggesting there are times when “being a jerk” can be effective in business. Unfortunately, the researchers in his piece don’t address the “bitch” factor, only the multi-gender “jerk” factor.
I guess the million-dollar question that has yet to be answered is: Why are women getting the lion’s share of the “bitch” complaints? And (perhaps for Polsky to take on in 2015) what can HR do to even that score?
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