Alternatives to being penalized for being “too assertive” at work

June 02, 20162 minute read

A recent report identifies alternative non-verbal expressions of leadership women can use to sidestep the prejudices that make it hard to keep the respect and admiration of their team. The findings, a synthesis of 71 studies testing reactions to people who behave assertively, are the bright spot alongside confirmation that women were disparaged more than men for identical verbal assertive behaviors

As an article in Wall Street Journal explains, the research was conducted by Melissa Williams, an assistant professor at Goizueta Business School, Emory University, and Larissa Tiedens, of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. They found “women were particularly penalized for direct, explicit forms of assertiveness, such as negotiating for a higher salary or asking a neighbor to turn down the music. Dominance that took a verbal form seemed especially tricky for women, compared with men making identical requests.”

On the other hand, non-verbal behaviors such as standing tall, talking first, interrupting when necessary can increase women’s influence at work because these behaviors work on a largely unconscious level. The article says, “Research suggests that the process of figuring out who’s on top in a group of people is so rapid and automatic that it often happens outside conscious awareness… When people see a woman stand tall and speak loudly, they tend not to consciously label such behaviors as dominance—so they may not trigger outmoded reactions about how women ‘ought’ to behave.”

The article encourages women “Think of nonverbal dominance as a side door to achieving influence at work.”