Negotiating Leadership as Women: How You Show Up

The Art of Negotiation and the Art of Leadership are closely connected. We often assume that both are innate traits – you’re either born with it or not. Not true. In fact, both arts are learned and can be acquired and elevated through intentional practice. Added to that, much of our impact and ability to get what we want in our negotiations and as leaders is based on how we show up. Women often self-sabotage in this key area. In a recent interview with Dr. Michele Williams, a professor at the Tippie College of Business, this point became even more clear. Stay tuned for some insights and tips that will help you in terms of how you show up to lead as a woman. 

Our starting point was the recognition that women tend to be more likely to shy away from negotiations for a host of reasons, many tied to social conditioning (and even more so in advocating for themselves). It's not just that they don't ask, it's that in the corporate structure they learned not to ask. They've been getting backlash and told they're too pushy, or too greedy, or too selfish … so, they learn not to ask. And they're disadvantaged by that. 

How do you redress that? As women, we just need to draw on our innate strength and ability to ask. When you look at our advocacy and negotiation skills on behalf of others (for our children, our family, our community) we’re tough negotiators. So why not set those high aspirations and expectations in the workplace and realize there are ways to ask and negotiation strategies that can really help you be effective.

One of Dr. Williams’ favorite strategies (from Amy Cuddy's work on presence) is using strong non-verbals. Women tend to get more pushback for their language than for their non-verbals. So when you come confidently into the room, speak calmly, pay attention to your tone of voice, pacing, body language and presence, that show of assertiveness can be very powerful. 

Take up space. If you watch powerful men walk into a room, they walk in big. They sit down, they spread their legs wide. They spread their stuff all over the table. That's one of the things that women can do with our bodies. Make sure you're not crunching down, and you don't look like you're just there to take notes. You're there to contribute.

Another thing in terms of space is your voice and how you frame your contributions. Women often preface everything with, "It's just my opinion, but ...", or we lower our voice and say, “I just might think …”. These can be VPs and high-end women execs saying really important things, and yet they'll still start that way. Instead, come out and say, "I think this is what we should do. This is the next plan. Our strategy is not working." Say it with confidence. The cadence of your voice is going to make a difference. Be careful not to ask everything as a question. “Maybe we could ...” or “Maybe we could try …” as opposed to “I think we should try this.” That combination of using your voice differently, and physically taking up space and owning that space will be a great asset in getting more of what you deserve.

According to some studies, another thing to be aware of is that when women progress in their career, they’re treated with less interpersonal sensitivity, but as men progress in their career, they're treated with more. All the work on power says more powerful people are treated with more sensitivity, and yet the opposite held true for women. Being aware that the context is different is the first step to addressing the issue. It may not always feel comfortable as you move through the ranks in the corporate world. Because of this, women ... (and especially women of colour) tend to shrink back. They come quietly in the room. They try to keep their head down, and just do really good work. They wait for other people to recognize them.

That strategy is not effective because nobody's paying enough attention to know what good work you're doing. If you're not advocating for yourself, it just falls through to the wayside, and you likely won’t be seen as leadership material because you're quiet and not getting into those difficult and challenging conversations.

Part of the solution is reframing our mindset. In the US and Canada and Western Europe we tend to view the workplace as a meritocracy. If you do a good job you will be rewarded. We’re not sure how or by whom, but hold the belief it will just come. We’ll just be rewarded. The idea that there are actual social networks in place, or that people have sponsors speaking up for them in the organization isn’t considered. 

According to Dr. Williams, once we think about the process as not fully a meritocracy but having a social element, it behooves us to actually let people know what our accomplishments are. These are just facts, and they come up in naturally in conversation. Women tend to hold back because they don't want to be seen as bragging. They don’t want to be the tall poppy for fear of being cut down. 

The narrative we start to tell about ourselves and our work is important. Another piece of that, If we don't tell our own story, other people will tell it for us. And the story other people tell for women is, "Oh, they're so nice. They're so good with people. Isn't that fabulous. I'm so glad to have her on my team. Oh, she's so passionate." Passionate, good with people, and nice does not get you promoted. They are often not seen as having anything to do with leadership.

But when you talk about it in different language i.e. being nice really means you are able to motivate your team. You're a good mentor to more junior people. You're able to help departments resolve conflicts. When you start putting different language to those behaviors – i.e. you're able to motivate everyone – that language is language recognized as leadership skills. It's our responsibility to tell our story in a way that lets others know we’re leadership material so they're not using just vague, nondescript language to describe all the good work we're doing.

If this perspective has been useful for you, check out the full podcast interview WITH DR. MICHELE WILLIAMS




Art of Leadership, Art of Negotiation, assertiveness, communication, confidence, feminine negotiation, intention, leadership, Mindset

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