Why We Need to Stop Buying Into the Idea That You Have to Be a Bully to Get Ahead

There's a difference between being assertive and being rude.
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There's a difference between being assertive and being rude.

“Sometimes you just have to be a b—,” my friend said vehemently, before she nervously laughed over mimosas during Saturday morning brunch.

She was describing a tough work encounter where she was hard on one of her subordinates. Reading between the lines, I could tell that she was really conflicted about how she acted and was searching for some affirmation (maybe some “you do you” enthusiasm?). I gave her a blank stare. Is this really how you want to act? Is this really you? I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t find the words.

“I know what you’re thinking," she stammered defensively, "but I’m done being nice at the office." Guess my face hadn't been so blank. She explained that it was only when she acted like a shark that she felt people took her seriously. Then I realized how she perceived her office: a food chain. To her, it was eat or get eaten. In her mind, what she did was actually necessary.

Sounds familiar, right? If this was a movie, she would be played by Sandra Bullock—tough, clever, blunt and ruthless. Hardened by a male-dominated workforce, she would suppress her vulnerability to thrive, climb the ladder, and rule all as a quick-witted ice queen. Or like Elsa in Frozen, she would fight for her place, “No right or wrong for me, I’m free!”—just her against the world.

Too often, powerful women, such as Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina, are labeled bitchy or bossy simply for being assertive in debates. Madeleine Albright, Angela Merkel, Anna Wintour, Katie Couric, Marissa Mayer, Barbara Walters—when it comes to female leaders in any industry, the list of women who've been called the “b word” goes on and on.

“People will call you a b— anyway, so why not actually be one?” my friend continued. It can be easy to fall into that thought pattern. Tempting, even. But it's definitely reactive. Oversimplified, inherently wrong, and a harmful habit to get into? All that, too. But more importantly, this is not the legacy nor the type of environment that we, as people—never mind gender—want to foster and perpetuate.

Being volatile, rude, or condescending aren't even terribly helpful tools in the business world. The Stanford Graduate School of Business reports that "replacing a low-performing boss with a high-performing boss raised productivity by 12 percent." Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy and her research partners "have also shown that leaders who project warmth – even before establishing their competence – are more effective than those who lead with their toughness and skill. Why? One reason is trust. Employees feel greater trust with someone who is kind."

So, how do we encourage one another to be strong and assertive without succumbing to unfair (and, frankly, inevitable) criticism? Moreover, how do we help one another become confident enough in ourselves not to allow such criticisms to wear on us, dictate our inner dialogue, or cause us to harden?

“I think any successful woman, at one point or another, has been called that word,” shares Sarah Argenal, founder of Working Parent Resource, professional certified coach, and certified court mediator who has spent the past fifteen years counseling, coaching, and teaching business professionals. And sure, we’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again: If a man said as much or in the same fashion, no one would blink an eye. “But at the end of the day, it comes down to perspective. You have to realize that you don’t have any control over what people may think or say.” You only have control over your own words and actions—and you can use them for good or for bad.

No matter what others perceive, Argenal reminds us that there is a distinct difference between being assertive and being bossy. “There’s a lot of skill that comes with being assertive. There’s a way to be outspoken while using discipline to keep you calm.” When dealing with touchy issues or frustrating people, Argenal advises, “Focus on the outcome—don’t get sidetracked. Be direct, be straightforward, and be level-headed.”

To get your point across, state your objectives and options in a calm, collected, detached manner from the start. “It’s a nuanced difference but a critical difference,” Argenal notes. When you’re poised and self-possessed in the workplace, you’re saying something to achieve something. You’re speaking for a productive reason as the goals of the discussion are clear. Most importantly, it’s a trait of a trusted leader, someone who can communicate clearly and calmly. In sum, you are decisive, not divisive.

Plus, the earlier you speak up, Argenal adds, the better. “The longer you wait, the harder it’s going to be not to bottle up emotions.” It’s when we bottle up those emotions and when we’re afraid of being direct that our emotions can come out with a level of energy that won’t be received well. This is often the point when women are libeled. Argenal says:

“It’s definitely a double standard, but the way to turn that double standard around is for women to really get good at being assertive, without being negative. We must model competence: be straight-forward, calm and firm. We will change the dialogue by being really good at what we do.”

On the other hand, by acting unnecessarily tough and hard—like a bully, as my friend was—you alienate yourself from your team members and making communication more difficult, which is obviously the opposite of a good and trusted leader.

“Whether you’re a man or a woman, how you manage interpersonal relationship is going to reflect in your reputation,” Argenal states. “And being a bully in the workforce will mar your career ambitions. You don’t want to be difficult to work with.”

If I could catapult myself back in time, back to that conversation with my dear conflicted friend, I'd ask her what brought her to that point. What emotions had she been bottling up? Was she unhappy at her office? Instead of staring blankly, I'd listen to her. I'd let her know that, while the business world can be cold, she didn't have to make it colder to succeed.

No matter what unfair labels are given us, the power to react for the better is in our hands. So, the next time someone says, “You need to be b— to get ahead,” look at them directly and calmly reply that you’d rather work like a boss—and a good one at that.

Photo Credit: Britt Rene Photography