One of my clients is experiencing a professional obstacle that is, unfortunately, all too common.
Susan is a passionate, driven, high-performing leader in a tech company. She often has a seat at the table with other company leaders. She finds that, although she has a seat, she doesn’t have a voice.
Susan is often interrupted and finds her contributions brushed off, or worse, sometimes her ideas are ignored, only to be repeated by a colleague the next day, or even 15 minutes later, at which point they are enthusiastically embraced by the team.
Behaviors like these can be described as micro-inequities, a term coined in 1973 by MIT professor Mary Rowe that describes small, subtle behaviors that overlook, single out or discount someone, often based on unconscious biases against race and/or gender.
It's not up to Susan to rewrite her colleagues’ unconscious biases, and it’s the job of everyone in the company to create a more inclusive environment. But there are things Susan can do to take back power in the situation. These are steps you can take, too, if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament.
1. Change your mindset about “bragging”
Susan has accomplished extraordinary things with her team. She rightfully has a place at the table with company leadership. But that doesn’t necessarily mean other leaders know what she’s done. Without that established credibility, her colleagues may not be eager to hear her ideas.
I asked Susan why she hasn't shared her successes with company leaders.
“I am British,” she responded. “I don’t want to brag.”
Being uncomfortable with self-promotion can be tied to culture as well as gender. Studies often find that women find it more difficult to tout their achievements than men do, even at the senior level.
If self-promotion feels uncomfortable, change your mindset about it. You are doing more than promoting yourself, you are promoting your team.
Frame it this way: “I'm sharing the team’s accomplishments so we can build on this momentum to push things forward, so it benefits the entire company.”
If you take the focus off you, you may feel more confident promoting your achievements. How are you and your team helping customers, increasing market share, benefiting the organization overall?
2. Get buy-in from key stakeholders
Susan often feels like the lone wolf in the boardroom, the only person who is aware of the value she brings. I recommended that Susan work on building alliances with colleagues, so they can support her when she speaks up and vouch for her value as a peer.
To understand the power of this kind of buy-in, consider this anecdote about the women in the Obama White House. When Obama took office, two-thirds of his top aides were men.
His female aides complained of being ignored and talked over during meetings. So they adopted a strategy: When a woman offered an idea or insight, other women would repeat what she said, making sure to attach her name to the idea as well. This strategy, which they named “amplification,” forced the men in the room to recognize the contributions of their female colleagues and give them credit.
If Susan gets buy-in from key stakeholders in her company, she can have her own amplification system.
3. Look at your own behaviors
Micro-inequities are behaviors delivered and perceived at a subconscious level. But Susan, too, was communicating subconscious messages that were holding her back.
First, we analyzed her patterns of speech. At the senior level, many executives prefer communication that is brief, succinct and to-the-point. Susan’s technical background cultivated a way of communicating that was much more thorough, detailed and lengthy. We worked on refining her messages so that she better matched the communication style of her peers, which makes it easier for them to receive and appreciate her messages.
Secondly, we considered her non-verbal communication. Was she sitting up straight, with open body language, projecting ease and confidence? Where she sat in the room also communicated a message.
When people sit in an outer ring, away from the seats at a conference table, or off in a corner, they communicate that they’re outsiders, and they're difficult to hear and see. I encouraged Susan to position herself in the center, sending the subconscious message that she not only belongs, she deserves to have the attention of the entire room.
We cannot change the unconscious biases and behaviors of others. But what we do have control over is the image we project, our mindset and having the confidence that we deserve a place and a voice at the table.
Maya Hu-Chan is a leadership expert, executive coach and co-author of “Global Leadership: The Next Generation.”