Women have a lot of strengths but in some contexts the way they’ve learned to behave does them no favours. Learning how to dress for success is just the start, what we need to focus on is the language of success. This means knowing what to do or say, what to avoid and when to push ourselves out of our comfort zone.
In most business contexts it is men who hold the power and pull the strings. Male stereotypes of women are a potent force and until these are broken down it’s something women have to learn to work with and overcome. The simplest way of accomplishing this is to develop a style that male managers feel comfortable with. This is not the same as saying put your beliefs to one side and do what men expect, it’s about harnessing an effective communication style that conveys assertion and confidence. If it’s effective in your business it will most likely be effective in others. So here’s a few adaptations you can make today:
Speak. Knowing a lot about your business is great but if you don’t learn to speak out it is likely to be perceived that you don’t know anything. There is no place for a shrinking violet in the world of business and if you sit quietly waiting to be called on for your contribution it may never happen. Even if an understanding Chairman goes around the room to include everyone in the comments it isn’t the same as pitching in. At minimum you must commit to making at least one contribution per meeting. At one level it demonstrates you are listening, but at a more important level it shows you have things to contribute. If you genuinely feel you have no more to offer than has already been said or written by another person then underscore a point that has already been made and which you personally endorse. Simple actions like agreeing or disagreeing pin your colours to the mast and show where you stand. It’s an important act of assertion which if you ignore is likely to leave you overlooked.
Head Nodding. As a woman, you may be nodding your head as a way of saying ‘I’m listening,’ or ‘that’s an interesting point’. As a man, head nodding means ‘she agrees with me.’ Be careful with head nodding. Too much and it sends a message of anxiety and submissiveness. There is no such thing as too little head nodding. In fact if your head remains still it conveys something more enigmatic. Use head nodding as a tool. A devise that you use only when you choose – such as if another person agrees with your idea and you wish to underscore it.
Interruptions. Men have the tendency to over-talk or blatantly interrupt. Women do of course but you’ll find men, or some men, feel what they have to say is so much more important. If you allow yourself to be talked over certain things may happen. First, you may fall victim to credit takers. These are the people who jump in at the last minute, feeding off your ideas and end up taking the credit. In these contexts it’s important to step in and, if needs be, over-talk the person who interrupted. You could say, “let me finish,” or “what I was going to say was,” or “if you could please not interrupt; it breaks everyone’s train of thought” or you could simply continue talking, while looking at the interrupter, and finish your point. Secondly, you may be trampled on. If out of politeness you allow interruptions you will very rapidly send a message that it’s ok for this to happen to you. There are people others always interrupt and there are people others would never dare to interrupt. You need to move towards the latter without appearing a monster.
Rising Cadence This refers to people who raise the inflection of their speech at the end of a sentence. It sounds tentative, as if posing a question. It has become something of a trend and may even be an export from Australia where the rising cadence is extremely common. In most business settings it’s a credibility killer. Women will not be taken seriously with this vocal pattern. To speak with authority you must practice bringing your tone down at the end of a sentence.
However, it does help to be culturally aware. American intonation patterns use a downward inflection to declare or demand and a rising inflection to question or indicate uncertainty. In Canada, India, Pakistan, France and China it is more commonplace to hear the voice rise at the end of a sentence.
Indecisive Language Don’t make a statement and then ask for validation. “This is a good idea, don’t you think? “We have the best team, right?” These tend to weaken conviction and authority. Other words and statements that project indecisiveness include:
- just (e.g. just a thought)
- only (I’m only new here but)
- hopefully (this will work – hopefully)
- guess (I guess I do have a few concerns)
Yes, it does depend on the timing and the context but the key message is to be aware of words and phrases that signal a lack of confidence. Imagine your surgeon saying “I’m new at this procedure but hopefully it’ll work out just fine.” Exactly! Think about the thin and weedy words and replace them with conviction words and phrases.
Dress Codes Feminist make a strong point when they say a woman should be able to dress the way she wants and not fear unwarranted advances or comments. Fair point but keep in mind that the way we dress, male or female, sends out messages. The bottom line is that we form impressions of people in seconds. If you choose to wear high heels, low cut blouses, heavy make-up, or micro-mini skirts you are communicating sexual availability rather than career mobility. Women, like men, must dress the part. The goal is to look professionally attractive. To achieve advancement, dress a level above your present position. If you are a supervisor, dress like a manager.
Body language Dressing the part goes some way to projecting the image you need but if you start using cute gestures such as shrugging shoulders, not making direct eye contact, standing with one leg crossed at the ankle and offering a weak handshake it will undermine your efforts. Have you noticed how men naturally seem to take up more space? Think about your body language. Hold your ground. Stand tall and sit up straight, make direct eye contact and ground your energy. Channel nervousness by using hand gestures about the waist. Act like you belong. You have a right to be there.
Public speaking. Don’t be a wallflower. There’s no point piling in the efforts in other areas of business life if you shrink in others. Avoidance of public speaking can be a career halter. You need opportunities for visibility and credibility and to demonstrate qualities of leadership. If you’re fearful get some coaching but don’t retreat from this one or your light will never shine.