The Other, Other 'B' Word

The Other, Other 'B' Word 150 150 Jonathan Villaire

As an advocate for gender parity and diversity, I strive to broadcast a message about the immense economic potential of advancing women in the modern workplace. Often, my content is couched as a rallying cry for more men to become allies on the journey toward gender equality. Aside from the obvious egalitarian reasons for having more women in leadership, it also makes sense from a purely business standpoint. If organizations had gender-balanced leadership teams and equally valued the contributions of both sexes, they would be better suited to adapt and thrive in a complex, volatile global economy. The advantages of diversity in business have been studied for years and are well-documented: There would be higher employee engagement, less turnover, and greater profitability.

Considering the clear benefits of diverse leadership, why are there still so few women in C-level roles today? Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, founded the Lean In non-profit organization to address this issue, and one of their campaigns is to ban the ‘B word’. No, not the one that rhymes with pitch. The other ‘B word’, bossy, is a term applied to young girls and women who are decisive, confident, and direct in the way they relate to others. It’s a pejorative used to discourage females from acting contrary to societal norms; i.e. that they should be agreeable and docile. Of course the male-driven business model encourages cutthroat competition and a commanding leadership presence, creating a Catch 22 for women who hope to be successful. If they try to fit in as one of the boys, they are perceived as aggressive and difficult. But if they are simply authentic, their kindness and cooperative nature work against them. The Ban Bossy project aims to empower women of all ages so they embrace their innate leadership qualities and are recognized as leaders in their own right. While this is an important effort in the push for gender parity, I worry that the message can be misinterpreted by some women who take it as free license to be the other, other ‘B word’: bully.

I stumbled across a YouTube video secretly recorded by a Georgia middle school janitor as he was being reprimanded by the principal for leaving work 8 minutes early. (You can watch for yourself here.) Throughout the meeting, the principal was rude, condescending, dismissive, belittling, and downright cruel. She repeatedly asked the janitor what his hours were, interrupted him as he attempted to explain the situation, and spoke to him in a manner unfit for conversation between grown adults. It was obvious from her smug demeanor that she was accustomed to using fear and menace to bend employees and students to her will. I’ve worked for and with women like this throughout my career. They either adopt this ‘dragon lady’ persona as a means of survival in a company or industry dominated by men, or it’s just their personality. This management style is unacceptable regardless of a person’s gender, but, as I mentioned before, there’s a double standard for women. They’re damned if they do act like men, and damned if they don’t.

How, then, can we ensure equal representation of women in leadership while discouraging bully behavior? Well, there are plenty of excellent books on the former, so I’ll tackle the latter because I believe bullying is an employee engagement issue, not merely a gender issue.

In my employee engagement practice, I teach managers to embrace a mindset of empathy, curiosity, and humility. Without these virtues, you are a just boss, not a leader. And you certainly won’t earn the respect or engagement of your employees if you forgo true leadership in favor of being a bully.

Empathy is our ability to relate to and feel for others. It’s what makes us human. When we empathize with people and “put ourselves in their shoes”, it causes us to think more carefully about how we behave and speak toward the the individuals in our lives. When meeting with an employee to have a potentially difficult conversation, empathy can make the difference between a mutually acceptable outcome and a result that leaves one party — invariably the lower-ranking person — feeling unheard, disrespected, mistreated, or cheated. Had the principal in the video practiced empathy by asking herself how she would want to be treated if she were the janitor, things would have gone much differently (and saved the school quite a bit of embarrassment).

While empathy means having an open heart, curiosity is keeping an open mind. Being a curious leader requires a willingness, even a desire, to hear positions other than your own. Doing so gives you an opportunity to build stronger relationships with employees. By asking them for their views, their feedback, their stories, and then listening without judgement or interruption, you are positioning yourself as a leader who wants to collaborate on solutions, instead of just bark orders. When leaders curiously listen, they are sending a message that they wish to co-create a positive and engaging employee experience. Woodrow Wilson once said, “The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.” The principal made it clear during her meeting with the janitor that the only voice she cared to hear was her own.

Curiosity also means questioning your motives and behaviors. This takes a high degree of emotional intelligence that comes from being humble. Humility allows us to challenge the ego and make decisions that are more effective in the long run, as opposed to satisfying our own immediate need to feel important. Many people, when given power over others, tend to let it go to their heads at the expense of the relationships with those in their charge. They haughtily believe their management title grants infallibility and deity; that it somehow elevates them to a higher stratum than the peons being managed. But we are all flesh and blood. None of us is any better than the rest. What makes a leader is not her status, nor her ability to control and punish. The measure of a great leader is seen through the eyes of people whose lives are better for having followed her.

In order for us to have an impactful conversation about developing more women into leaders, we need to agree that bullying is the antithesis of effective leadership. We need to hold everyone in management positions, gender notwithstanding, to the highest standards of conduct and preserve the integrity of what it really means to be a leader. It will take a dramatic shift in the business world, one that champions the merits of empathy, curiosity, and humility. To start, those with the power to make this change will have to be another ‘B word’: brave. Courageous leaders — both men and women — must shape the modern workplace into an environment where bullies aren’t welcome, one where success doesn’t come without kindness.

About the author:

Jonathan D. Villaire is a bridge-builder, truth-teller, and advocate for empathy who helps leaders understand how to effectively engage their employees and, more importantly, how to stop disengaging them. He founded Cognize Consulting with the aim of giving supervisors, managers, and executives a new perspective on employee engagement: See employees as human beings, not as human capital. Understand how to create an employee experience that increases retention and attracts top talent. Engage employees with a leadership mindset of empathy, curiosity, and humility. He is a speaker, coach, and author of the upcoming book The Stepford Employee Fallacy: The Truth about Employee Engagement in the Modern Workplace.