Talking About the Hard Stuff
Coming to Terms with the Double Bind
If you are a leader or aspire to leadership, you know how important it is to avoid being typecast.
For people outside the traditional power mainstream— in many cultures, women and people of color— this can be especially hard as we are subjected to the double bind of being “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” For example:
You’re viewed as lacking impact and leadership potential if you don’t speak up strongly and clearly… but you’re deemed overbearing if you do.
You’re judged as hyper-political if you try to build relationships that enhance your access and build your position…but you’re dismissed as “not a player” if you don’t.
You’re seen as out for yourself if you talk up your individual contributions…yet if you don’t, you’re overlooked when it comes time for promotions because people aren’t aware of what you’ve accomplished.
Research confirms that the double bind is pervasive. And clients I’ve worked with offer baroque and jaw-dropping anecdotes on how the double bind has played out in their own work lives:
From an aerospace engineer in the defence industry-
“I contradicted a colleague in a meeting when he misrepresented some data I’d developed. Our team leader told me on the spot that I’d spoken out of turn. Afterward, he continued to chastise me for undermining team harmony. He even dragged out that old cliché about how ‘there is no i in team.’ I found this obnoxious because the whole meeting had been contentious, with several of the guys challenging the hell out of one another. The tone didn’t seem to bother our team leader until I made my objection. I guess he couldn’t handle even a fact-based challenge if it came from a woman.”
From an associate in a Swedish law firm-
“I was asked to contribute to a client presentation. I know the client has a short attention span, so I really prepared to be concise. My segment was the shortest one that day by almost fifteen minutes. Nevertheless, at the dinner afterward, several of my male colleagues began teasing me about how I had gone on and on. One said, ‘You sounded like my wife when I ask, “How was your day?’” I get this whole litany when ‘fine’ would have been enough.”
From a communications manager in a UK transport company whose family had emigrated from the Caribbean-
“I asked one of our executives in a town hall to clarify a point by offering an example. Two people came up to me afterward and said, ‘You seem pretty angry.’ I get that a lot—the angry Black woman thing. If I challenge anyone, people automatically assume I have a grievance which they often seem to attribute to race. Most colleagues try to be subtle about this, but sometimes it’s right out there.”
As a rule, people in the dominant mainstream don’t struggle much with the double bind. As a consequence, they may believe it doesn’t exist or feel hostile about having to deal with it.
Amsterdam-based leadership coach and author Jeffrey Hull describes working with male clients who become frustrated when he even suggests they become more aware of how they come across. He says, “Some of these guys are used to not caring what anyone thinks. They’ve been very successful and don’t believe they should spend time or energy adjusting to a changing environment. They tell me, ‘I know I’m supposed to be all touchy-feeling and develop these soft skills because there are all kinds of people in the workplace these days. But basically, I think it’s a fad. It’s being PC. And I’m not buying in.”
Jeff observes that men with this attitude often view becoming more flexible as letting someone else—women and/or minorities—dictate the terms of their engagement. “These guys tend to be highly competitive, which means they try to score a win off of every encounter. If they don’t come out on top, it feels like a loss. Plus they know that women often excel at the kind of soft skills they lack. They don’t want to concede that these skills have value because they fear that would give those who do have them an edge.”
Jeff also notes that being more flexible would require these men to try out behaviors they rarely practice and so are not especially good at. “Humility is not in their toolkit, so doing something differently makes them uncomfortable. This is natural—we all feel uncomfortable when we try something new. Nobody likes doing it, but it’s how we grow and develop. People stuck in this mindset need to recognize that refusing to grow is an increasingly poor career move.”
As 2023 kicks off, and in the weeks leading up to the publication of my new book Rising Together: How We Can Bridge Divides and Create a More Inclusive Workplace, I’ll be taking a hard look at the crossroads between perceptions—an area that lies largely beyond our control— and behavior— something we can control. This crossroads is where friction occurs most often in the workplace and where being pragmatic— employing specific behaviors that have a positive impact— can make all the difference in the world.
To pre-order Rising Together and save 47% on the list price, just click the image or either of the buttons below. You’ll receive a free invitation to attend a 90 minute Zoom workshop with me on April 11th, 2023.
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