Bev’s Tips on Leaning In

Successful women leaders

manage the way they “lean in”

March 19, 2013 * Number 185

I’m enjoying the controversy Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has stirred up with her instant bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to LeadSandberg argues that, despite gender biases still prevalent in the workplace, hesitating and offering excuses won’t get women anywhere. She urges women, instead, to believe in themselves, fully engage, step up and “lean in.”

I generally agree with Sandberg.  As a career coach I often speak with extraordinary women who, after years of disparate treatment, feel hesitant and uncertain when their talent suggests they should act like confident and determined leaders.

But we can’t ignore the cautionary note from some critics. The New York Post’s Andrea Peyser wrote, “Sheryl preaches a mantra that seems destined to get women fired, not promoted. She says that women who fail are not assertive, demanding or needy enough… At a time when a woman feels lucky just to have a job, here comes Sheryl, blaming the purported victim for being passive.” 

Sandberg herself says that it is not always the time to “lean in.”  You have to pick the moments when you take charge.  And you have to be aware of the traps.

Sandberg nailed one of the problems in her chapter 3, “Success and Likeability.”   Sociological research demonstrates what many women leaders have learned the hard way.  When men are assertive and seem confident other people tend to like and admire them. But when women act the same way others may find them pushy and not likeable.

In one experiment, students read about a successful venture capitalist.  Half the students read about “Heidi” and the other half read an identical story describing “Howard.”  Howard came across as an appealing colleague.  But Heidi, although respected for her accomplishments, was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work with.” 

I have seen this time and again in the written annual evaluations of women clients.  The boss writes up their accomplishments, making it clear that they met their goals and even did extraordinary work.  But then he adds a note like this:
“But she needs to be aware of how she is perceived by her colleagues.  Her aggressive behavior tends to rub people the wrong way. She should be more careful about ignoring hierarchical boundaries and she shouldn’t spend so much time networking.”

In other words, hard-charging women leaders get the job done, but then they are criticized for the behavior that makes their success possible.  So what’s a girl to do?  Here are tips for managing the likeability trap:

  • Act like you’re not afraid.  As a woman, you’ve been slapped down for assertive behavior that would be rewarded if men did it.  As a result, you may fear stepping into the limelight.  Sandberg suggests you ask yourself, “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Then go do that. 
  • Don’t sweat criticism from “them.” As you move up the ladder, not everyone will be your fan.  It will not hurt you if “some people” think you are too pushy or assertive.  It says more about them than about you. Stick to your values, focus on the organization’s mission, help others where you can, and keep building your network.
  • Connect with other women.  If your organization still has a gender bias, it’s vital that you network with other women.  They will bring you support and information about threats and opportunities. Mentor them, and you will find that many mentor you in return.
  • Seize opportunities.  Sandberg points out that women often want to be super prepared before they take on new challenges. Men are more likely to jump at new opportunities, and get ready on the fly. It’s time for some women to move closer to the cutting edge. Stop worrying so much about credentials and expertise.  If you spot something interesting and new, find a way to get involved, and learn as you go.  Jump in, then lean in.
  • Watch your language.  It’s sad but sometimes it’s true.  When he talks about what he needs or has done it sounds confident, but when you do the same, it sounds egocentric.  Sandberg suggests that you frame things more collectively, using phrases like “women need” or “the team did this.”
  • Deliver the work. Sandberg’s success is tied to her history of working for strong bosses and producing the work they wanted.  The first rule is always to know who your bosses are, know what they want and need, and give it to them.  If your boss is a sexist jerk then it may be time to move on, even if the only way out is a lateral shift.  But while you still have the job, keep doing good work.  If nothing else, your achievements will help you get the next job.

If you want to read more about “Lean In,” check out Kerry Hannon’s article for


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