Management Feedback: Are You Abrasive or Assertive?

Let me guess. If you are a successful woman, in the past, you've been told you're too abrasive, too direct, maybe even too assertive. Too much. See The One Word Men Never See In Their Performance Reviews.

Here's the problem. You might be.

I was.

But never in the “examples” my bosses provided. The “examples” they provided were the ones when I advocated for my staff. The ones where I made my managers uncomfortable. The examples, where, if I had different anatomy, they would have relaxed afterwards, and we'd gone out for a beer.

But we didn't.

Because my bosses could never get over the fact that I was a woman, and “women didn't act this way.” Now, this was more than 20 years ago. (I've been a consultant for 20 years.) But, based on the Fast Company article, it doesn't seem like enough culture has changed.

Middle and senior managers, here's the deal: At work, you want your managers to advocate for their people. You want this. This is a form of problem-solving. Your first-line and middle managers see a problem. If they don't have the entire context, explain the context to them. Now, does that change anything?

If it does, you, senior or middle manager, have been derelict in your management responsibility. Your first-line manager might have been able to solve the problem with his/her staff without being abrasive if you had explained the context earlier. Maybe you need to have more one-on-ones. Maybe all your first-line managers could have solved this problem in your staff meeting, as a cross-functional team. Are you canceling one-on-ones or canceling problem-solving meetings? Don't do that.

Do you have a first-line manager who doesn't want to be a manager? Maybe you fell prey to the myth of promoting the best technical person into a management position. You are not alone. Find someone who wants to work with people, and ask that person to try  management.

We all need feedback. Managers need feedback, too. Because managers leverage the work of others, they need feedback even more than technical people.

If you think a manager on your management team is “too” abrasive or assertive,” ask yourself, is this person female? Then ask yourself, “Would I say the same thing if this person looked as if she could be a large sports figure, male attributes and all?”

You see, the fact that I have the physical attributes of a short, kind-of cute woman has not bothered me one bit. I feel seven feet tall. I often act like it. I am not afraid to take chances or calculated risks. I am not afraid to talk to anyone in the organization about anything. How else would I accomplish the work that needs to be done? (You may have noticed that I write tall, too.)

Abrasive and assertive are code words for fearless problem solvers. Don't penalize the women—or the men—in your organization who are fearless problem solvers.

5 Replies to “Management Feedback: Are You Abrasive or Assertive?”

  1. About this topic, I really loved the book LeanIn.
    It gives good idea’s how to deal with this situation.
    One of the things that seemed to work good, is that women defend each other when this happens.
    (When you defend yourself, you are even seen as more aggressive)
    By defending someone else (which is seen as a good thing for women) there is more chance the managers will listen.

    anyway, that is just one thing. the book has more like these…


    1. HI Yves, yes, that is one good thing about that book. It’s also fine if peers defend each other. I don’t remember if Sandberg said that or not. I’ll have to go back and re-read it.

  2. Kieran Snyder has an interesting article about why women leave technology positions. Her assessment: it’s the culture. Women feel different, both because they are surrounded by (mostly) white men and because they’re treated differently.

    Equality requires plurality. Until the workplace has more people of color, more women, and more folks from the LGBT community, we straight white men are going to make people feel uncomfortable. And all of us will act on that discomfort, in all the right and wrong ways, and the wrong people will leave, for all the wrong reasons. It sucks, but the situation is better than it was, and it continues to improve. Maybe the Millenials will finally crack the code on equality. Or maybe it will be up to my granddaughter’s generation. In any case, it’s inevitable.

    1. Dave, I bet she’s right.

      Boy, that piece resonated with me. When I took my first maternity leave, 26 years ago, my manager said to me, “I only have to leave a job open for you. It can be any job. It doesn’t have to be your job.” At the time, I was a first-line manager. He thought he would use that to pressure me into taking a shorter leave.

      I took my entire 12 weeks, for a variety of reasons. I wanted to return to work with something approaching enough sleep. It wasn’t (:-), but I was not frantic with lack of sleep. I had a private office, so I could pump during the day.

      When I returned to work, that same boss gave me a promotion, to manage another group. You see, in my absence, they’d been having trouble. They discovered that they needed me.

      This is the problem I referred to How to Hire for Cultural Fit Without Becoming Insular and Mediocre.

      It’s okay to have a culture where not everyone looks and acts like you. It’s okay to have a culture where not everyone is 20-something with no kids, where not everyone is a straight white guy who is from a middle class background and went to the same schools in the same kind of neighborhood.

      This is a hiring problem. It’s a management problem. It’s a feedback problem.

      I left a traditional job and became a consultant because when I looked for senior management job 20 years ago in the Boston area, I was (take your pick) too young, too short, and way too female. But as a consultant, my directness, my assertiveness, my ability to see the whole picture? Excellent characteristics. It didn’t matter that I was female. I provided valuable insights to teams and management. What was a liability as part of the management team was an asset as an outsider.

      When I explain this problem one-on-one to hiring managers, they understand. When I explain this to senior management teams, and I show them I am the only woman in the room, they still don’t understand. We need more women in senior management. The glass ceiling is still very difficult to crack.

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