“You need to be more assertive.”
“You need to be less emotional.”
“You need to be less aggressive.”
“You need to speak up more in meetings.”
If you are a woman in the workplace, it is likely that you have had one of these claims lobbied at you by a well meaning colleague or supervisor. You know the ones I’m talking about: not the colleagues or bosses who are assholes, and whose comments you can easily brush off without brooding over them. No, I’m talking about the colleagues or bosses who seem to genuinely have your best interest at heart when they give you this feedback. They want to see you advance in the organization. After giving you one of the above pieces of feedback, they may well-meaningly suggest that you take a training course or get some coaching.
You want to get to that next level in the organization. Who wouldn’t? It’s more responsibility, more visibility, more opportunity to have an impact in the organization, and of course a higher salary. So you sign up for the training course or you find a coach. Hopefully your organization pays for it, although we know that’s not always the case. You attend the training, you acquire new skills and…you brood. You wish this skill came more naturally, like that male colleague of yours who talks all the time in meetings and gets credit for all his accomplishments and then some.
Stop. Right. Here. This is not inclusive leadership. Why is the responsibility for change all on you?
I’m a trainer and a coach in the areas of communications and inclusive leadership. I’ve been an educator and a people leader my entire career. I wholeheartedly believe in training and coaching as important parts of everyone’s development, but this all-too-familiar scenario misses two important questions:
- Who am I being trained to become?
- Who’s getting trained to behave more like me?
- What structures are in place to support my unique leadership style?
Let’s say you’re the woman who’s been told you need to speak up more in meetings and you attended a women’s leadership training to help you learn how to do this.
Question 1: Who is this training you to become?
That person who speaks even when they don’t have anything important to say? Who speaks just to have his/her voice heard? Who takes credit for other people’s accomplishments and ideas? Does your organization really need more of this?
Question 2: Who’s getting trained to behave more like you?
You listen intently. You prefer to ask thoughtful questions rather than have all the answers. You like to process things deeply before coming up with a decision. You value inclusiveness and equity and want to ensure all voices are heard, not just the voices of a few. While you attend this women’s leadership training to practice speaking up more, who’s getting trained to listen more?
Question 3: What structures are in place to support my unique leadership style?
How are my unique skills being rewarded and promoted within the organization? How do performance reviews align with the unique leadership skills I have to offer? What meeting structures are in place to encourage the sharing of diverse perspectives and voices?
This is just one example. There are many scenarios where these three questions would come in handy. And from talking to lots of colleagues over the years, it’s not only women who experience this situation. This is not to be an us-vs-them discussion. If any element of your identity is underrepresented in your organization, or some aspect of your identity has been historically marginalized and devalued in our society, chances are you’ve been in a similar situation to the one described above: asked to take a training to fit a certain kind of leadership mold, without the organization asking the other important questions about how to model inclusive leadership.
Embracing a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging means valuing diverse perspectives, behaviors, and strengths. Having a diverse looking team who all conform to a standard leadership style isn’t inclusive leadership. Training is important, but leaders have to ask “Who are we training our staff to become?” Are we training employees to fit one leadership mold? Are we asking employees from underrepresented communities to conform to majority culture, without asking employees from overrepresented communities to change their behavior? Or are we training all employees to see the unique value in their own and others’ strengths, and to learn from each other?
The next time you receive this type of feedback, and more importantly the next time you’re in a position to give this type of feedback: What questions will you ask of yourself and your organization?
See my related article on Medium about how representation is not the only diversity, equity, and inclusive leadership goal organizations should be focused on.