Women frequently hear they must have a certain amount of aggression and arrogance to succeed. They’re also told that if they are too agreeable, their careers can stall.
These are biases and gender stereotypes, to be sure, but are they true? And can women get ahead without rolling over others? You may have heard the aggression-factor called by other names, and it’s certainly part of leadership lexicon—but there is nuance and complexity to what it takes to get ahead.
It’s important to separate truth from fiction in terms of what it really takes for women to succeed. Here’s the research, the reality and some recommendations for getting ahead and gaining fulfillment without leaving your best behind.
It’s important to be clear about the characteristics we’re talking about—and which confer advantages for a woman’s career. It’s also just as important to clarify what’s not helpful—and which traits may be better to leave behind on your career journey.
Specifically, the aggression-factor doesn’t have to mean you’re truculent or disrespectful of others’ opinions. The my-way-or-the-highway approach may work in the movies, but it rarely works in reality. Better, is to have a strong point of view and assert strong opinions, while clearly respecting the perspectives of others and taking an open, learning-oriented approach.
The aggression-factor also doesn’t have to mean you’re arrogant. Leadership certainly requires confidence, but true power is a balance between confidence and humility. In fact, when leaders demonstrate strength along with humility, they tend to gain credibility, rather than lose it. When you are capable and competent, there is plenty of room for people to push back, question or disagree because these lead to greater knowledge, understanding and innovation overall.
MORE FOR YOU
Leadership has been one of the most studied dynamics in social science and management fields. From this research we know that people tend to think of leadership success in terms of characteristics—certain elements of personality, manner or approach that are typically associated with effectiveness. In addition, personality characteristics are used significantly as a rationale for hiring and promotion.
Here’s what we know about the traits that are most associated with leadership:
- Agency. A study by New York University found people generally choose traits that have to do with agency—having control and taking action. Specifically, people believe leadership is demonstrated through competence, assertiveness, confidence, ambition, decisiveness, self-reliance and intelligence. They also tend to believe these are higher priorities than an emphasis on community, sincerity, cooperativeness, patience, sensitivity, cheerfulness or trustworthiness. It wasn’t that the latter traits weren’t important to the survey participants, they just didn’t rate as highly as the former types of characteristics.
- Sensitivity. Similar to the New York University Study, meta-analysis h by the University of Buffalo found sensitivity may not be an advantage in leadership. This research was sweeping, across 59 years of research, encompassing more than 19,000 participants and 136 studies from multiple settings including business, labs and classrooms. The analysis found when people showed sensitivity and concern for others, they were less likely to be perceived as leaders. The research also showed that women were less likely to be selected for jobs or roles because of an association of these as typically feminine characteristics.
- Calm. The meme about remaining calm and carrying on has some validity based on research. A study by the University of California found women who displayed calmness and positive emotions tended to get higher marks for effective leadership as compared with men. The desire for calm by followers is probably related to people’s need for leaders to carry them through crisis or difficulty. Humans prefer predictability and consistency, and a calm, optimistic demeanor can provide a lighthouse in rough seas.
- Pride and Cheer. A study by Technische Universitaet Muenchen found when women demonstrated pride in their accomplishments, they were perceived as leaders, but when they expressed cheerfulness, they were less likely to be described as leaders.
- Likability. In addition, studies published in The Economic Journal have shown there is a likeability bias which operates against women. People expect women to be likeable at the same time they are effective. If women aren’t perceived as likable, people will cooperate less and demonstrate less support. The same dynamic was not evident with men—even when they weren’t perceived as likable, people did not reduce cooperation or support in working with men.
How to Succeed
Knowledge of biases and gender stereotypes can be sobering, but it can also be a source of resilience. Resilience requires an understanding of reality, and then it requires you to make sense of things and solve problems. Studies published in the journal, Cognitive Emotion, found that people felt less angry when they were able to take positive steps toward resolving issues. When you know what you’re up against, you can take constructive action and make positive progress forward.
Keep in mind three things about the path forward. First, succeeding is always individual. Your version of assertiveness or decisiveness can look very different than someone else’s and that’s okay—better than okay, differences offer plenty of advantages. Second, success is situational. Your brilliant negotiation of issues with a difficult boss may not play well with customer. Third, success is also about balance. You’ll want to be both strong and subtle, both urgent and impatient, both eager to proceed and wise about risk taking, and you’ll need to embrace your smarts while also celebrating a naivete which allows you to remain open to all that you don’t already know.
Leverage three strategies for success:
#1 – You Do You. “You playing small doesn’t serve the world,” is apt advice. Figure out what you’re good at, and stay attentive to what you do well since you will develop over time. Apply your talents, embrace what makes your contribution unique and add your skills to the mix of your projects, your organization and your community. We all have an instinct to matter, so despite biases and stereotypes, embrace who you are and all that you bring. Put it out there and play to succeed.
#2 – Demonstrate empathy and support. At the same time you’re expressing your own voice and talents, listen to others, empathize and provide support for their efforts. We all have tremendous impact on friends, colleagues and communities just through our own choices and behaviors, so remind yourself how much you matter to others’ success as well.
#3 – Respect multiple points of view. In order to succeed, you must be strong and assert your point of view. But this doesn’t mean running over others or their opinions. Avoid the trap of taking a zero-sum approach or believing your opinion is the only one, or the right one. Respect diverse perspectives and make room to listen. Seek to understand others’ points of view. You’ll want to do this so you can learn, grow and enhance your own knowledge, but also because it’s a faster pathway to earning the respect of those around you.
Your level of assertiveness is a dial you can turn. In some situations, you’ll want to come on strongly. In others, you may not. Be aware of yourself, your circumstances and your goals so you can flex. This is true emotional intelligence—knowing yourself and staying self-aware so you can manage your approach and make your greatest contribution as a result.