It’s not uncommon for women, minorities, or young individuals in leadership roles to face challenges to their authority. Two executive coaches share tactics for handling those situations and mitigating resulting conflict.
It’s not new news that women face extra challenges when trying to enter into leadership or when simply trying to fulfill their management duties from a leadership role—barriers that they share with leaders from minority or younger age groups.
But the conversation around women leaders has been revived following recent incidents; that is, Arianna Huffington, an Uber director, fielding a disparaging remark during a board meeting and California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris being interrupted twice in a week—behavior all too familiar to many women.
Yet there are some measures that individuals, namely women, can take to demonstrate they won’t stand for that kind of treatment, said Rebecca Klein Scott, cofounder of business and communications coaching firm TALLsmall Productions.
The first step is eliminating “doormat” language by making oneself hyper-aware of crutch words. “A lot of women in particular use words that serve as an open invitation for people to walk all over them, such as ‘I just have a small question,’ ‘I kind of was thinking,’” she said. “All of these hedged words and couched language downplay women.”
Keith Scott, her fellow cofounder and husband, said: “Also understand your intuition and gut feeling. If you walk into a room—whether a minority or a woman—and you feel there’s some sense of discrimination, that you’re sidelined or marginalized, you most likely are. Understand why people are doing that, their frame of reference, so you can better utilize words that will allow them to understand your position and the power of what you’re saying.”
Portraying a sense of authority also must include your body language. “Are you going and sitting at the table at the center of it, or are you going back to the periphery? [Show] that you’re confident [by] sitting and taking up space and not hunching over,” Klein Scott said.
But it’s not always a person’s use of “doormat” language that leads to their being interrupted. Sometimes the individual is perceived as and stopped for being too aggressive or bossy. In those cases, Scott recommends confronting interrupters by turning their language around on them and inquiring about the reason for the interruption.
Such challenges not only arise for women in their positions as board members but also for women who hold leadership roles within an organization, such as a CEO or a department head. “We see this everywhere, where there’s a different expectation for men than women, and that’s something that needs to change,” Klein Scott said. “Yes, changing your word choice and your body language can’t control for that in every situation, but it can certainly break some of the stereotypes that people have out there.”
In addition to the individual’s actions, organizations, boards, and staff teams should take time to discuss the need for an inclusive culture—ideally before any tension arises—through team-building exercises. Any tension that does arise from biases can be fought by all group members observing the team’s behavior, becoming aware of their own behavior and prejudices, and getting to know each other on a personal level.
“When you don’t have that relationship, it’s easy to fight, but if you build that relationship where you know them as a human being, you can break down a lot of conflict,” Scott said.