Does Sandberg’s “ban bossy” campaign help or hurt women by Roz Usheroff

You would probably have to be on another planet – maybe even in another galaxy – to not have heard of the recent call to arms of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to eradicate the word “bossy” from our everyday vernacular.

According to a Forbes article by Micheline Maynard titled “Dear Sheryl Sandberg: There Are Far Worse Things Than Being Called Bossy,” the writer recounts a slight suffered by Sandberg when she was a junior high school student.  Apparently, a teacher told Sandberg’s best friend, “Nobody likes a bossy girl. You should find a new friend who will be a better influence on you.”

While there are certainly no shortages of women jumping on the ban bossy bandwagon, including notables such as Beyonce and Condoleezza Rice, I found Maynard’s position to be most interesting.  Specifically her Tweet which proclaimed “I’ve got news for Sheryl Sandberg: there are far worse things for women than being called bossy.”

Maynard then goes on to say “bossy isn’t only a word that applies to women. It’s gender neutral. There are plenty of bossy men out there, too. Bossy is bossy — dictatorial, unyielding, telling people what to do and expecting them to do it without any input.”

I tend to agree with this last point, as men too get called bad words for being pushy.  However, in my many years of coaching both genders, I have never heard a man being referred to as bossy, but rather “aggressive”.  There are two questions to consider.  If a man is referred to as “aggressive”, is that perceived as positive or negative?  The second question is more related to how women and men react to a negative and even unwarranted comment.

Maynard ended her article by saying that the word bossy “reflects more about the person who said it than it does about you,” and that one should not “take it personally.”

Once again, there is truth in Maynard’s position that is worth considering beyond gender.

For example, I met with a female several weeks ago who has a very senior position.  However, her boss doesn’t seem to believe her collaborative style warrants a higher position in leading people.   She has led groups, transformed organizations outside of this company yet her credentials don’t seem to matter.  Her boss’ perception is that she is is not strong enough to manage challenging people, yet her results demonstrates the contrary.

On the other hand, I also know a guy who everyone loves.  He’s hoping for an EVP role and to sit on the leadership team.  His boss says that he isn’t demonstrating leadership qualities like his peers. He’s seen as too nice a guy.  Go figure!  He brings in the results.

What’s interesting with the above two scenarios is how each responds to what appears to be a harsh and somewhat unfair assessment by their respective bosses.  Or to put it another way, what would be the best and most productive way to deal with these situations.

Does it make sense to stand up on a soapbox and proclaim that being called “weak” or being “too nice” should be banned from our language?  Alternatively, does it make more sense to receive the feedback, understand the basis for why you are being seen this way and, figure out a way to deal with it so as to remove the obstacle?

Perhaps the answer is found in Sandberg’s own success in that as Maynard put it,  she didn’t let the teacher’s comment “stop her, since she’s a billionaire and a best-selling author.”

I can’t help but wonder if Sandberg would have achieved the same level of success if she had chosen to launch her ban campaign when she was starting out, as opposed to using the teacher’s slight as motivation to ascend the corporate ladder to the lofty position she now holds.

In other words, by placing an emphasis on a word or words as opposed to rolling up your sleeves and focusing on getting the job done, is Sandberg hurting or helping the next generation of women leaders?

Last, if by chance you do receive feedback that suggests you are either “bossy” or “aggressive”, I would encourage you to ask the person to explain what that looks like.  At best, you can decide if his/her perspective is valid.

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7 responses to “Does Sandberg’s “ban bossy” campaign help or hurt women by Roz Usheroff”

  1. Kathleen Wilson says :

    Hmmm, I am really torn by your post and the Forbes article. I have never heard the word bossy used to describe a man. Actually men are never spoken harshly about when they are pushing their ideas or trying to lead. I tweeted this, and the replies from my followers lead me to think that “Bossy” is a word only used to describe women and I agree with Sandberg now.

  2. Jim Trunick says :

    Get rid of “ bossy “. To allow that term, as context for fighting for a point, or being assertive is absurd. We got rid of “bully” because of the social context……. Field hands had bosses . Time for leadership to be less positional and more purposeful !!

  3. Sonia Boudreau says :

    While Maynard may be right for adults, the campaign is targeted at young girls. As a mother of two future female leaders – it is important that they are not tagged with words such as head strong, stubborn, controlling or bossy, instead they understand how these traits can give them options later in life. Those words have negative connotations and they hear it on the radio, on TV and they read it in books. So yes Maynard is correct – we as adults have to make this gender neutral – but in the meantime, our daughters need this campaign. LOVE it!

  4. Kelly Barner says :

    I, too, can see both sides of this issue. I am a professional woman in a field full of men. I also have a six year-old daughter. I’ve been called worse than bossy – although being called bossy would still bother me, as did the other slights. In my opinion, the change needed is not in the words people are allowed to use, but in the self-confidence each of us must have regardless of age that allows us to face up to negative criticism.

    As a girl, I was painfully shy. I constantly struggled to balance my natural a(and maybe hyper-) sensitivity with the harsh real world. Over time, my skin thickened, and I learned how to stay true to myself and put myself ‘out there’ at the same time. I encourage my daughter to do the same. She can’t control the choices or actions of others, but she can control how she responds to them. She can contain the level of influence she allows them over her thoughts and feelings.

    Bullying is an important issue that is getting a lot of attention with today’s kids, especially with the addition of social media channels that allow peer cruelty to go viral. I don’t see the benefit of targeting a specific word (bossy) as being more beneficial than what is already being done by parents, communities, and schools. I would have preferred to see a more positive angle to the initiative. “They called me bossy, but look at me now! I am a COO, a musical A-lister, a Former US Secretary of State. I didn’t let their negativity stop me, and neither should you.”

    • rozcoach says :

      Kelly, I really appreciate your spirit and perspectives, especially your statement about the power of self-confidence which resonated with me. However, there are unfortunate situations where we run into confidence robbers. By that, I mean individuals who choose to deliberately make us feel insignificant, too emotional, or a variety of other feelings that make us question ourselves. It is necessary to have a thick skin so that we are able to assess the situation without emotion. It becomes easy to react to negative words when they are delivered unexpectedly from people we know well.

      The advice I give my clients when they run into these confidence robbers is to step back and determine the motive. and validity I could go on forever but most important is to surround yourself with people who champion you and encourage you and give unconditionally from their heart. These people become your sponsors and are there to support you. When we become selective with whom we allow to be close to us, we become more resilient and can be comforted that we are getting honest and caring feedback. Sometimes it’s good to step back, take inventory and identify who needs to be fired from our support circle. It is obvious that you have done this already! Congrats!

  5. Jim Flynn says :

    Awesome Roz. Hope life and Brian are treating you well.

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