In an article that she wrote for the Harvard Business Review, linguist Deborah Tannen recalled a meeting held at a multi-national corporation. In the meeting, a company division head listened to his senior managers as they recommended people for promotions.
The division head noticed that not one female had been endorsed for a promotion, and he asked his managers why. The senior managers stated that the women lacked self-confidence.
As Tannen explained in her story, many managers pass their female employees over for promotions because they don’t appear confident. They might have demonstrated competence — they might even have felt confident — but because they didn’t project confidence, they lost out on career advancement. Fortunately, communicating with confidence is a skill that women can learn. It’s the key to getting more women into leadership roles.
Shouldn’t Competence Be Enough?
More women earn graduate degrees than ever before, but they occupy fewer than 15 percent of C-suite offices. Despite the workplace advances that women have made, communications students and researchers note that male-centered communication norms still dominate business environments. According to Tannen, males communicate to establish hierarchy and to establish status, while women communicate to build connections. Males and females might say the same words at work, but the way they communicate those words, or their linguistic styles, differ greatly.
- Men are direct while women are polite. Men tend to dominate discussions during meetings and to offer direct critiques. Women seek consensus, and cushion critiques to help the recipient save face.
- Women prefer collaboration while men prefer to solve problems alone. Tannen’s research shows that women say “we” when discussing their own work, and men say “I.”
- Men and women take turns speaking in different ways. Women speak in a meeting or conversation after noting a pause. Men, however, interrupt each other as a way of taking turns.
- Men and women have different styles of humor. Men tend to banter and tease one another with witty remarks. Women tend to tell self-deprecating stories in which they make fun of themselves.
- Men act more certain than women. When men aren’t certain about their ideas, they often pretend that they are. Women tend to downplay their certainty even when they feel confident.
People in powerful positions grant promotions to people who have the same communication style as they do. Since more males currently hold high-level positions, people who communicate in a male linguistic style tend to earn more promotions. Competence should be enough, but in reality, it’s not. Women have to recognize communication style as a tool for establishing dominance, and they have to learn how to use it.
How to Sound Confident
Tannen and other researchers point out that men aren’t generally bums who want to keep women out of power. They simply reward people who communicate in the same way that they do, and the business culture isn’t self-aware enough to realize what’s happening. Women can learn to use more typically male communication styles. These tactics will help:
- Eat lunch with the boss. Men, according to Tannen, behave in ways that earn recognition from their bosses. They’re more likely than women, for example, to sit down at a lunch table with their bosses. Building a relationship with the boss — and talking about your accomplishments with the boss — is essential to earning a promotion.
- Speak with certainty. Unfortunately, people tend to perceive women who ask too many questions as insecure. Women should determine when to ask a question and when to write down a question and research it on their own, realizing that asking questions verbally expends dominance capital. Also, when they’re certain about a fact, they should avoid speaking as though there could be other options.
- Go ahead and say “I.” Women should say “we” when they need to give a team credit for an accomplishment. However, when the accomplishments are their own, they should go ahead and take individual credit for them.
Talk Like a Man
In an ideal world, women wouldn’t have to communicate like men to get ahead. In the real world, when earning leadership positions means communicating like the people who have power, women have to project confidence at work. Once more women become leaders, workplace norms will change. Until then, to navigate business culture, women have to look as confident as they feel.
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