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Guest post by Rebecca Williams
This article is the second instalment of the “How to Communicate with Confidence as a Woman in a Leadership Role” blog series by Rebecca Williams. Read part 1 here.
A successful leader strikes a balance between being approachable and likable, while also being respected and authoritative. For women in leadership roles, walking this line can be challenging because we are often judged more harshly than men when it comes to our communication style. Recently I spoke to Elisabeth van Holthe tot Echten, Accelerator Manager at Lead F at the Vienna-based Female Founders, an online leadership accelerator for entrepreneurial women. We had fun getting nerdy about the very particular communication struggles women in leadership roles face and how we can speak with more confidence. Here’s what came up.
Giving commands and making requests without sounding weak or bossy
Elisabeth van Holthe tot Echten says that in speaking to the women in their programs across both Europe and now Africa, the number one struggle is that women find it hard to navigate how to be a supportive, nurturing leader while still being able to crack the whip so things get done.
“The women in our programs ask, ‘How can I be a supportive leader, and then when I ask my team to do something, they actually do it?’” —Elisabeth van Holthe tot Echten
The word ‘command’ can sometimes feel like a dirty word. In the modern workplace, we like to believe that we’ve moved on from telling people what to do, but the truth is we still have to do that in organizations if we want to get things done.
Instead of being clear and direct when making requests and giving commands, I’ve seen a lot of women in leadership roles do something like this. They’ll say, “Would you mind doing XYZ?” And then the other person, because it’s a conditional question, could basically say, “Well, I’m busy,” or “I don’t want to do that,” or something else because they have an out. I see women struggling to just say the thing they want to be done. Instead, they’ll put all this padding around their words to soften the command. Van Holthe tot Echten agrees that this communication style is confusing to everyone.
“On the one hand, you as a leader feel like “Hey, but I told you to do that.” Whereas the other person heard something that sounded more like an option than a command.” —Elisabeth van Holthe tot Echten
It’s confusing from the speaker’s / leader’s perspective because you have internalized this request as a command—something you want the other person to do. Whereas the other person heard something that sounded more like an option than a command. Van Holthe tot Echten says, “It comes up in our workshops as well. You explain the framework and then they’re like, ‘Do I really need to order them to do something? Can I not put it as a question?”
When it comes to giving directions or instructions, it’s important to be clear and direct. We have to be sure we’re not over-correcting to being “nice” because we’re afraid of being labeled bossy. Here’s how to avoid this.
It’s not about you
It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not necessarily you commanding this person like you’re the king or the queen. You represent the organization: the tasks you’re managing others to accomplish benefit the group, not your personal agenda. This is an important distinction because I’ve found that when women realize “Oh, it’s not actually about me, it’s about the organization, the customers, or the other people in the organization who need this from us,” then they become these bad asses. They naturally shift into a warrior role, “Hey, you’re gonna do this and do that because they need our help.” Here’s how you can tailor your language to match this new shift in perspective.
Use “we, our, let’s” when making requests and giving instructions
Research suggests that using the first-person singular pronoun “I” can lower one’s perceived status as a leader. The theory is based on the idea that using “I” can make a speaker appear less confident or less sure of themselves, which can lower their perceived status and authority. This is one of the reasons I coach women to use group-focused language like we, our, and let’s when making requests and giving instructions.
For example, instead of saying, “I’m wondering if you could redo this report by tomorrow,” or “I want you to redo this report by tomorrow,” you could say, “Let’s redo this report by tomorrow. OK?” In this example, I’m using fewer words (less padding), using group-focused language (let’s), making a clear statement of what needs to get done, and it’s obvious that I’m not going to do it because I’m asking the other person for confirmation of the plan at the end.
You can use phrasing like, “We need to redo this. Can you get this on my desk by tomorrow?” That’s asking a question with the context of, “Do you have time by tomorrow?” You’re not asking them if they want to do it. The words we, our, and let’s make it clear that it’s not about you, it’s about the organization, and the goals and objectives we’re trying to achieve as a team.
Communicating achievements without being perceived as arrogant
Another area where Van Holthe tot Echten and I agreed women struggle is communicating their achievements. “For example, when they have their yearly performance review coming up, and there’s a standard set of questions. It’s always important to clearly express what achievements you actually accomplished over the past year,” says Van Holthe tot Echten. She says with the women in her programs, the fear of being perceived as arrogant runs high.
“They also tell us, ‘I don’t know how to communicate this without being perceived as being arrogant.’” —Elisabeth van Holthe tot Echten
I’ve seen that there’s a tendency with women, because we often feel we need to battle our way up, to over index on what we as individuals have done when speaking about our achievements. Yes, we want to exude more confidence and highlight what we’ve done. But if we overdo it, it can backfire by making us look like we’re trying too hard. It can make us sound arrogant.
Balance “I” and “we” statements when highlighting achievements
That’s why I coach women to balance the words I and we when highlighting their accomplishments. Why is this important? Because “very little work gets done alone,” says Michel Nabti, organizational psychologist and former Director of Organizational Strategy at Waymo. If you ignore this fact by only speaking about what you have done, it can make you sound insecure.
With a balance of I and we statements, you’re giving kudos to the team, but you’re also acknowledging your role in the success of the project. And it’s almost that lack of need to say how much you did that makes you appear more confident. It makes you sound more like a leader. Here’s what that sounds like in practice.
For example you might say, “Last year I led the team at XYZ, and I’m proud that we were able to accomplish XYZ.”
Or “When I was at X company, I owned the X role on a cross-functional team of 10. Together we were able to XYZ, which resulted in a 20% increase in revenue.”
By developing awareness around the way we communicate, we can catch ourselves in the language patterns that aren’t serving us. It’s not about pandering to an ideal of “how women leaders should sound,” it’s about understanding how to be skillful in the way we communicate so we can make a bigger impact—and have more fun while doing it.
Leadership Communications | Brand Storytelling Consultant
I’ve been helping people communicate for over 20 years. From helping companies find and tell their brand story to training teams how to give great presentations on camera, my background in theater, teaching, and performance inspires how I help leaders bring messages to life.
With 18 years’ experience teaching English as a Foreign Language on four continents, I specialize in helping non-native English speaking executives with leadership presence and communications skills.
My passion is using the power of story to create community, to build brands that make a difference, and to connect people in service of a joyful, creative, and more empathetic world.