Women are often raised and socialized to be "people pleasers;" and learn to focus first on the needs of others instead of themselves, according to Penny Locey, vice president at Keystone Associates, a career management consulting firm. That can negatively impact their ability to gain respect in the workplace.
"Many women, even those in senior roles, default to people-pleasing mode when they take a new position, which can undermine their power in an executive position. They're concerned about winning the approval and respect of their peers, superiors and direct reports, so they may hesitate to take a tough stand for fear of appearing dictatorial or overly controlling. Their natural warmth and empathy, when overused, may result in their being labeled 'too nice,' which, in most business settings, is code for 'indecisive,' 'tentative' or 'unassertive,'" says Locey.
Instead, Locey says, women should focus their behaviors on earning the respect of their reports and teams rather than on simply being liked, even if their decisions aren't applauded by everyone.
"Obviously, you don't want to be a dictator or make harsh decisions arbitrarily, but you need to establish early on that you are firm but fair - that you won't back down from tough choices and that will help your peers and reports develop respect for you and your role. Otherwise, you risk losing any power you might have," says Locey.
Make sure you're looking objectively at your habits and behavior and try to modify those that dilute your influence, says Stephanie Daniel, senior vice president at Keystone Associates. For example, in an effort to be viewed as accommodating and thoughtful in meetings, do you do any of the following:
- Tend to wait to offer your insights and ideas until everyone else has spoken?
- Soften your voice or apologize for expressing an unpopular view For example, saying, "I'm sorry, but I don't think…" or "You probably won't agree with me on this, but…"?
- Do your declarative statements sometimes end in a question mark? For example, 'I think that the customer will be pleased with our proposal, don't you?'
And pay attention to your body language, too, says Daniel. Your body language and how you use eye contact could subconsciously be projecting the wrong message.
- In a group, are you inclined to focus your attention on just one person? Or, do you scan the room to ensure that your message is being heard by all participants?
- Are you more likely to sit in the chair that is farthest away from the conversation; an unconscious signal that you're not interested in or don't feel qualified to participate in discussions?
Subtle changes in your approach will make a significant difference over time and you will see a shift in the way people relate to you, notes Daniel. "The qualities that make you an engaged and collaborative leader will remain intact; your image as a decisive and confident leader will be strengthened, and the "too nice" moniker that's been attached to you will become a thing of the past," says Daniel.