Do you find yourself holding back the truth at work? Saying too much? Worried that if you’re candid you’ll face a backlash? I’m still thinking about organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s OpEd in The New York Times, “Women Know Exactly What They’re Doing When They Use Weak Language.” This dynamic is one of the most difficult areas to coach people through, so I’m sharing tips for navigation.
Structural changes in the workplace will help, Grant points out. I agree. He acknowledges that “men can find female power threatening, so women learn that they frequently have more sway if they equivocate a bit.” He references organizational behavior expert Alison Fragale’s paper about the power of powerless speech.
In this paper, Fragale wrote, “It is surprising that a behavior as subtle and potentially meaningless as one’s speech style should affect something as consequential as one’s ability to get promoted or be respected.”
Subtle? Meaningless? Far from it. Speech is incredibly powerful.
Grant notes that women often have to “tame their tongues to protect fragile male egos.” Many women are adept at being blunt, and it’s absolutely true that there’s a “likeability penalty.” Grant’s piece focuses on weak language as a tool for self-promotion and self-protection. He makes the argument that equivocation gives women more sway.
But there’s a lot of gray area between dominating people verbally and deliberately making yourself look weak. I’ve worked with diverse senior leaders across industries and many of them do it. They speak slowly and use an economy of words. I teach this to all the women I’ve coached during their ascent into senior leadership positions. I also recommend that when they have something important to communicate, they begin by making a sincere comment or observation to inspire the people in their organizations.
While women are too often expected to tame their tongues, men are too often expected to tame their entire emotional response to the complexity of being a human being. And let’s be real – other women can be just as harshly critical and competitive with each other as some men are with women, especially in hierarchical workplaces with many people and few promotional opportunities.
Beyond self-preservation, there’s a larger communication issue in a workplace setting: Companies need their best minds operating and contributing at capacity. Cultures that enable weak language are in danger of making colossal errors or missing the chance to capitalize on significant opportunities.
The Contrast Between Extremes
Power Pairs™ is a process of navigating your next step. We use seven hexagons to represent the dynamics governing an individual or team, and to draw contrasts between the dynamics. Two of those hexagons – Red and Green – exist almost like polar opposites, like the yin and yang of the spectrum of human dynamics. These hexagons often clash with one another, because Red is fueled by action and candor, and Green is fueled by feelings and connection.
This dynamic causes a lot of communication problems.
In the illustration above, the two communication extremes are tagged.
The Green hexagon on the left symbolizes the dynamic of being consensus-driven and valuing camaraderie. Sometimes, Green dynamics can grow so large that it’s almost like wearing a civility mask to work. This is a common dynamic for people who are conflict averse to the point where they don’t want to make anyone, including themselves, uncomfortable.
The Red hexagon on the right symbolizes candor, instinct, fast action and decisiveness. When Red gets too large it can be like listening to someone shout into a megaphone.
So what happens when you get Red and Green dynamics on a team, and people need to work together to make decisions?
Recommendations for Red
Many people, including women, who “tame their tongues” often have a natural Red Anchor – a desire to speak out and say the truth as they see it. There’s a vitality and immediacy to Red tendencies. While people often claim to value honesty and the truth, straight shooters can be punished. And it’s not just women. I’ve worked with leadership teams long enough to know the distinct sound of courtesy laughter when men want their boss to feel good about his lame joke instead of facing the fact that his mistakes made the value of their stock drop. If many women use weak language, many men stay silent instead of speaking truth to power. The courage doesn’t come in the “speaking out” part. It comes in the willingness to deal with the consequences of having tipped the apple cart.
If you have Red tendencies, try pausing and creating space. You do not need to share your opinion instantly when someone shares theirs. Wait. Jot down your thoughts. Let people feel like they are able to express themselves, and try to be interested in what they actually have to say. Thank people for being candid. It’s not just about you and what you want to say. Red is also about encouraging other people to do the same.
Recommendations for Green
What about individuals with a Green dynamic? What can they do differently?
If you have Green tendencies, be aware that a slower pace can frustrate people who prefer to move fast. People with Green tendencies tend to wish for the impossible – complete consensus all the time. Can’t we all just get along? Not 100% of the time. Green doesn’t like the tense moments. If you get annoyed when someone speaks candidly, give yourself some space. Try not to take it personally when another person expresses their opinion or is overly blunt.
In both cases, the goal is to temper the amount of Red (candor) or the amount of Green (civility) that you are demonstrating in response to other people. You don’t have to be overly blunt. But you don’t have to pretend to be weak, either. You can practice a middle ground. As researcher Brené Brown is famous for saying, “Clear is kind.” Clarity drives results.
Read more about our recommendations for the Red/Green communication dynamic in our Case Study with a Fortune 50 client.