Why you don't need to act like a man to succeed at work


By Emma Serlin
November 9, 2019

‘Act like a man to succeed’ is a misguided piece of advice on several counts. Quite aside from the problem of deciding which men to imitate (what if they are dysfunctional or incompetent?), this go-to advice for women invalidates the natural female traits - strengths that are essential to succeed in business.

If you have been told to adopt a male communication style to be heard, or to emanate a masculine presence to be noticed, you have been misled. Climbing the career ladder doesn’t require men and women to play to male strengths. Where does such a ladder lead to? Not an effective executive leadership that’s for certain. Here’s why you can be a confident business woman whilst playing to your side of the spectrum:

Be authentic - use your feminine strength

When women bring their authentic selves to work, their communication becomes more powerful, team members benefit from their contribution, and other women are encouraged to be more authentic too.

In general, women lean towards having greater empathy and emotional intelligence than men. A woman’s capacity to tune into the underlying tensions of a team, or the mood of an individual, equips them to notice problems that men often overlook (potentially a long list).

A woman addressing tension within a team

This insight gives women an effective vantage point to address these problems, whether directly in conversation, or more subtly. For instance, sensing that a team member is holding back, they can affirm a former contribution, e.g. “you had such an excellent idea last week,” to shift their level of engagement. As women generally have empathy in swathes, this positions them uniquely to facilitate wellbeing within a team - which will improve the team’s performance no end.

If diversity is not a company’s strength and only one woman is in the room, they have even more reason to utilise their unique strengths. This is where the greatest pressure to think and talk like the men in the room usually arises, but it is also where it matters most. If women don’t play to their feminine strengths, no one else will.

Greater diversity in a team increases collective intelligence and leads to greater business success. In fact, the Wooley study reveals that there is “little correlation between a group’s collective intelligence and the IQs of its individual members. But, if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises.”

In general, women are driven less to prove themselves, or to build their ego. Bonding and community are far greater motivators. The desire for authentic connection enables us to set the bar for honesty and empowered vulnerability. The strength to say, “I was scared of xxx but I dealt with it by…” or “something I’m working on with myself is…” is essential. Especially in a room full of men. It’s a femine strength that effectively says, “Hey, remember we’re human, the pressure’s off here.” In a space crowded by ego, women are creating the opportunity for genuine trust to be formed.

Excited woman raising her arms while working on her laptop in her office

Displaying passion and emotion has a similar effect: it’s fuel for connection. It’s certainly not a weakness. By engaging with their passion, women can inspire greater engagement with their ideas, especially when they illustrate it through story. They’re creating the conditions for people’s hearts and minds to say, “sign me up.”

Note: this is different to sharing raw emotions. Only share experiences you’ve processed so you can communicate them in an empowered way.

Additionally, men are not typically renowned for their multi-tasking abilities, whereas, most women take this in their stride. In a world where information is coming from every direction, the ability to multitask gives women an amazing advantage.

Succeed at work by reducing undermining behaviours 

To bring their full feminine strength to the table, women also need to be willing to identify self-sabotaging patterns. Cat Clancy, one of our expert Coaches at London Speech Workshop, lists women’s strengths as: “building rapport, empathising, and taking the longer view - to name a few.” But she notes that we can undermine our impact by “apologising, using disclaimers, prioritising being liked, and trying to avoid boasting.”

These are not negative tendencies in and of themselves, but in status-conscious cultures they can be misinterpreted as lack of confidence. As Cat says, “It’s about developing an awareness of your communication patterns and developing control over them, so that you can convey your expertise persuasively.”

“There’s an interesting area around the language women use when introducing a point in a meeting. Often they’ll use what we call ‘disclaimers’, “This might be a bad idea but…” or “This is probably not right but….” which is undermining the validity of their point. And if they’re with men who only hear the headline, then their point will get lost altogether. We are working on developing exercises in line with the Serlin MethodTM that will address this.”

At London Speech Workshop, we encourage women to develop their own style of feminine leadership and communication by using our tools. They bring feminine strengths to the fore and give control over self-sabotaging habits.

Boost your confidence and authority

If you are a woman experiencing challenges in your workplace then take a look at the following list for some ideas to boost your confidence and gravitas in the office.

  • Prepare thoroughly before an anticipated conversation or meeting. You could write down bullet points or use anything else that helps you define your objectives. Ordering your ideas into logic structures such as “Problem, Evidence, Solution” can focus your attention on the core of what you want to communicate.Your groundwork helps you to hit all your important points, but you can be off the cuff with your delivery. Just make sure you land each key thought. [link to blog on delivery/authority]
  • Interrupt using positive statements. Nobody likes being interrupted, but everyone likes having their ideas affirmed. If you endorse what someone has said before adding your own point, your interruption won’t feel like one. For example, “Yes that’s true, and that also raises the issue of…. “ Your affirmation makes people receptive to your point, maintains the positive energy in the room and launches your voice into that space. Read more interruption do's and don'ts
  • Deal with interruptions. Some interruptions you can brush off without consequence, but others you need to face head on if you want to be heard. Pause for a moment to reduce your adrenaline and then take the ball back. It’s yours. You don’t have to get caught in the interrupter’s energy. You can endorse their point, interrupt back, or ask a simple question, “Would you mind if I carry on?” Your question stops the moment from becoming a scolding and turns it into simple human interaction.
  • Ask questions. Actively listening and demonstrating your interest through the questions you ask will encourage others to treat you in the same way. Their answers to your questions might also help shape your own ideas and line of argument.
  • Cultivate resilience. Internal anxiety doesn’t need to get the last word. Techniques such as visualisation, power posing (as introduced by Amy Cuddy) and banish the bully can go a long way to reduce nerves.
  • Avoid upspeak. This mode of speech may be familiar to you. It’s when in your pitch raises toward the tail end of a sentence, softens its landing, often turning a statement into a question. Upspeak is useful in some situations - when a lot of tact is necessary - but can make you appear less confident when articulating your thoughts in a meeting. You want to control the tone of your voice, using a downward inflection when you need to sound assured.
  • Avoid fillers while speaking. You don’t need to speak without pauses to avoid interruption. Pausing, when used intentionally, can command the attention of the room. It helps others to feel the weight of what you are saying. Create a feedback loop between your body and mind:
    • Sit closer to the table
    • Place your hands on the table and stay animated when talking
    • Keep your shoulders upright
    • Make purposeful eye contact
  • Practice gesture exercises, because communication is about far more than words. Animating your words with your movement adds greater colour to your speech and helps an important point hit home.
  • Keep your facial expression congruent with your message. If it’s meant to be sobering, it’s okay not to smile. If it’s meant to be exciting, it’s impactful to let it show.

If all this sounds daunting, remember that these tools are only ways to facilitate feminine strengths, not for women to become something they’re not. Self-sabotaging habits are, after all, only habits. They are not the fundamental parts of ourselves. We can always learn new habits and we don’t need to go at it alone.

Multi ethnic business team at a meeting. Interacting. Focus on woman

Client case: the need to be heard

One of our clients continually left meetings having said nothing. She was becoming demoralised. It wasn’t that she didn’t have any opinions to offer. It was just that the meetings were so dominated by big personalities with confrontational communication styles. With the pace of conversation bouncing like a ping pong ball, she found it difficult to get a word in. She came to London Speech Workshop and we coached her using our ‘interrupting well’ formula. Soon after, she was contributing more in meetings. She was no longer nervous of coming across as pushy and forceful. Our ‘Logic Structures’ assisted in this, keeping her thoughts on track, particularly when she was challenged by colleagues.

Build your communication armoury

The masculine traits that have dominated the workplace aren’t bad. Some of them are tremendously valuable, and it would be great for everyone if they had a little dose of all of them in their communication armoury. There’s still a case for speaking out more, taking more risks and being more assertive. It’s just that these characteristics have been disproportionately endorsed to the detriment of women.

Sure, women can still benefit from shifting into a traditionally masculine mode of speaking - at times. But by the same token, men should be adding feminine forms of communication into their own repertoire. After all, that’s what most businesses have been lacking. Feminine traits and identity are essential for companies to fulfil their true potential and for everyone to succeed in business.

If you identify with the struggle to stay true to your strengths, check out our upcoming Women in the Workplace course. Book a taster session where one of our expert coaches will help you identify your personal communication challenges and set you on the right track to reach your goals. There’s no need to dampen your feminine fire. This is a chance to let it blaze.

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