Women Leaders’ Assertiveness Challenges and Solutions

  1. Women Leaders’ Assertiveness Challenges and Solutions
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Women Leaders’ Assertiveness Challenges and Solutions

Problems Faced by Women Leaders Who Lack Assertiveness Skills

There is a direct relationship between assertiveness and business success. Women leaders who are uncomfortable advocating for themselves and their teams fail to attend one opportunity banquet after another. No matter how competent you are, if you aren’t confident enough to make sure upper management is aware of your competency and your value to the organization, you’ll probably be forgotten when raises, promotions and resources are distributed.

Team members don’t fully trust a woman leader who lacks well-developed influence and persuasion skills. Employees know leaders who fail to influence other decision-makers can’t effectively advocate for the needs of a team. Employees want to work for strong, well-respected leaders who establish alliances that assist goal-oriented team members.

Employees rapidly lose faith in leaders who are timid or appear to be people-pleasers. If a woman leader goes along to get along, if she fails to stand up for her team members, employees know they’ll be cheated out of essential resources, as well as raises and promotions. The non-assertive female leader may find herself continuously having to recruit and train new personnel because team members choose to work for more assertive leaders who promote and fully support their employees.

When a woman leader doesn’t know how to stand up to her boss or lacks the confidence to do so, she can be over-loaded with inappropriate responsibilities dumped on her by upper management. The results may include ineffective leadership of her team, poor performance reviews, lack of respect at all levels, confusion, exhaustion and related health issues.

Even though employees will probably never like every comment their boss makes, most employees will tell you they prefer objective, clear, direct communication. Even if a leader sometimes fails to be 100% tactful or diplomatic, team members want to know where they stand. They also want specific guidance regarding how they can improve professionally. Team members want to become more successful, efficient, make more money and gain promotions.

I’ve coached employees and leaders for decades who have complained about nightmares caused by people-pleaser leaders who withheld information that could have helped the employee grow professionally. Below are some frequent comments about leaders with poor assertiveness skills.

  • “I think she’s not confident enough to say what she means and mean what she says. It’s good that she’s pretty non-judgmental and gives people the benefit of a doubt, but employees pay a price because she tries too hard to avoid conflict. A small issue sometimes has to become an elephant in the middle of the room before she’ll address it. Our team needs a leader who’ll consistently campaign for us. We can’t depend on our boss. I wish I could sign her up for Assertiveness Training 101.”
  • “She wanted me to like her. I thought her job was to help me grow. She either didn’t want to disappoint me or didn’t want me to disagree with her. I’m not sure which. Regardless, she didn’t tell me where I was messing up and how to fix my mistakes until it was too late.”
  • “She has thin skin. She dodges a simple difference of opinion like other people race away from a mad hornet. I think she worries too much about what other people think of her. She wants my approval, like a friend to a friend. I don’t want her need to avoid criticism to interfere with my career success.”

Why Do Women Leaders Tend to Be Less Assertive Than Male Leaders?

I don’t want to contribute to gender stereotypes. Some women are more aggressive or competitive than most men. Some men are more passive or cooperative than some women. We also know positive social change is occurring. For example, fewer parents today than in previous generations buy gender-stereotyped toys for their children and set expectations for gender inappropriate career expectations, like “Boys will build and run companies. They’ll be doctors and engineers while girls serve as nurses, assistants and teachers”.

Even so, studies consistently show the following regarding assertiveness, self-esteem, confidence and persistence.

  • Most men feel more confident than most women, even when the man’s training, credentials and experience are similar to the woman’s.
  • Most males judge their performance more favorably than most women do, even when the two performances are comparable.
  • Because of social conditioning, no matter how competent they are, most women find it more difficult to stand up for themselves than most men do.
  • Women frequently have to remind men that “No” really means “No” and not “Maybe.” This situation is so prevalent that many males assume they will eventually get their way if they persistently push for their agenda.
  • When a man says, “No” to a woman, most females tend to think “No” means “Never,” even though this assumption is sometimes false.

Deep cultural roots have nurtured the scenarios described above. Although we’re all unique individuals, personality tendencies and behaviors related to child rearing and social conditioning are reflected in the world of work. Most men are taught to assert themselves at a young age. Women are more often rewarded for submissiveness, compromise, nurturing, agreeing with others and cooperative behavior that is responsive instead of assertive. Click here to watch a video regarding this.

Most boys are expected to demonstrate competitive, assertive behaviors at a young age. This makes it easier for males to be considered potential leaders. Stronger, more aggressive boys often become known as leaders as soon as they win a competition, even when they’re part of a team.

Why Do Some Women Leaders Fear Being Assertive?

A leader’s comfort level with assertiveness is directly linked to confidence and self-esteem. We’ve discussed several reasons that most women tend to be less confident than men in the world of work. Since climbing the corporate ladder is usually more difficult for women than men, some women are afraid to rock the company boat. Emerging women leaders often have confidence and assertiveness issues.

Women leaders who practice healthy assertiveness are often unfairly labeled “aggressive”.  Please note: By definition, assertive behavior is not pushy, bossy, controlling or manipulative. Because assertive people are confident in their abilities to handle changing or unexpected situations, their leadership is generally fair and even-tempered. Because their confidence can insulate them from unnecessary stress, their teams tend to be less stressed than teams led by people who are less self-assured.

Assertive leadership behavior includes overcoming any fear of speaking your mind and standing your ground so you can:

  • Influence other people.
  • Build strategic alliances.
  • Gain the professional resources you and your team need.
  • Successfully lead a team, empowering individuals and the group to reach their highest potential.
  • Advocate with upper management for the team’s interests and yours.
  • Do all of the above in ways that respect the personal boundaries of everyone concerned.

During her leadership journey, most women leaders are occasionally challenged to defend themselves against both subtle and abrasive aggression. This is only one reason some women fear being assertive. When assertiveness is mis-labeled as aggressiveness, a woman leader can be alienated from the support she needs (from both men and women) to do her job.

Why is a female leader’s assertiveness so often mis-labeled “aggressive”? Watch political debates and you’ll quickly notice that the same action taken by a man and a woman is often labeled “aggressive” in the woman and “assertive” or confident in the man.

Men who have limited expectations for what women can achieve and men who prefer a good old boys leadership club in their organization are not only uncomfortable around a strong, assertive woman, they often belittle her or her behavior.

Aggressive behavior in males is so often excused or rewarded that many people assume aggressive men are confident and powerful. The opposite is true. Aggressive people hide their fears and insecurities by trying to control other people. Because aggressive people fail to respect the personal boundaries of others, they often harm or manipulate other people when they try to influence them.

Please recognize that the behavior of a confident, assertive woman is unfamiliar to many people of both genders. Women who lack confidence sometimes criticize assertive female leaders. Many women with low self-esteem who know they aren’t personally courageous enough to stand up for themselves are uncomfortable around strong, confident women. Many females who harshly judge strong assertive women have endured intimidating experiences and have been told that women should be content in support, instead of leadership, positions.

Some people criticize confident, strong female leaders because they’re envious of their abilities. This fact can be the most hazardous for a woman leader when the passionate critic is unaware of their jealousy.

Discover Solutions to Leadership Confidence and Assertiveness Dilemmas

You can’t control what someone who wants to belittle you says about your behavior, but you can actively take steps to encourage objective evaluations of your leadership. This requires courage, but the rewards are endless. Step by step, you’ll significantly elevate your leadership confidence every time you speak out and know you deserve to be heard and treated with respect.

Even if you’d prefer for your performance to speak for itself, you must be prepared and willing to confidently, consistently and tactfully raise awareness about your accomplishments, your team’s achievements and how they add value.

For over 20 years, I’ve coached women leaders and emerging leaders who needed to develop assertiveness confidence and skills. I use a proven program I customize for every client. We begin by becoming crystal clear about your goals, challenges and existing strengths.

During your coaching sessions, in addition to developing Your Personal Leadership Success Plan and elevating your confidence and assertiveness skills, I help you over-prepare to counter any external resistance you anticipate. People who have been criticizing you begin to recognize your integrity and value. Soon, your supporters outnumber your critics.

We also work with internal Parts of you that have been holding you back. Virginia Satir’s 1978 masterpiece, “Your Many Faces”, explained that all of us have Parts of ourselves that we haven’t fully discovered. (Examples are an internal inner critic, perfectionist, taskmaster, warrior, etc.) Exploring our Parts empowers us to take charge of them instead of being unconsciously controlled by them. This is important because every Part of you is a source of energy you can learn to channel in productive ways.

Your Parts have your best interests in mind, even when they’re misguided or misinformed. They emerged during your previous life challenges. You’ve changed and grown since that time. You have new life skills now, but these hard-working Parts of you are still living in the past. They can consume a lot of your leadership momentum trying to protect you from situations that may not still exist. Once we educate your Parts about your current strengths and needs, they can use their powerful energy to help you become the exemplary leader you truly want to become.

Click here to read more about the internal Parts of women leaders. Below are just three common examples:

  • If Part of you avoids speaking out because it wants external approval, it may hesitate to state your needs or advocate for your team. Together, you and I update this Part of you so it clearly understands that being “liked” is not a helpful or a valid leadership goal. (At best, you’ll only receive conditional approval, which can disappear at any time.) During our work together, your Part begins to understand that being respected is a better goal because it will help you gain the results you need for you and your team.
  • Another Part of you may sometimes try to convince you that it’s not appropriate or politically safe to stand up for yourself. We update any traditional expectations inside of you about what women leaders are capable of achieving. We clear limiting beliefs and replace them with accurate beliefs, supplemented by role models of highly successful women leaders. As we continue to work on your leadership confidence, this Part of you accepts a new job description to assist with empowering you to be a fully confident, exemplary leader.
  • When many people who were previously afraid to stand up for themselves or their beliefs begin to practice assertiveness, there is a tendency to overstate their case (over-assert). I help you avoid creating an opportunity that could result in being misunderstood or criticized. We work with any Part of you that encourages you to push too hard because it still fears it won’t be heard or taken seriously.

You gain a beautiful sense of balance from the work we do with your Parts during your coaching sessions. This creates an internal approval and harmony that you’ve been seeking outside of yourself. It’s a empowering professional journey you’ll always thank yourself for embracing. Just complete a short application form here so I can contact you for a complimentary 20-minute consultation.

© 2019 Doris Helge, Ph.D. as interviewed on “The Today Show,” CNN and NPR. Certified Master Leadership and Executive Coach Doris Helge is author of bestselling books, including “Joy on the Job,” Doris has helped hundreds of leaders like you meet every challenge you’re facing. Click here now to sign up for your complimentary Women’s Leadership Coaching Consultation.

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About the Author

Doris Helge

© 2019 Doris Helge, Ph.D. at www.WomensLeadershipTips.com Doris Helge, Ph.D., MCC is a Certified Master Executive Leadership Coach and author of bestselling books, including “Joy on the Job.” Click here now to sign up for your complimentary Leadership Coaching Consultation.

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