The Assertive Girl's Guide To Getting What You Want

Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
"Pushy." "Aggressive." "Bitch." When it comes to dealing with conflict in the workplace, it's safe to say that treading the line between "assertive" and "aggressive" is a tightrope walk. And, with the recent case of Ellen Pao, who was dismissed from her job for "sharp elbows" and being "prickly," it's even harder to decipher what people see as "aggressive for a woman," or just plain aggressive.

Real innovation and change, however, occurs when people argue, as Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill contends in her latest book, Collective Genius. "Diversity and conflict are good," she says. "They are the critical ingredients to innovative solutions. When I looked at healthy organizations, I found that they built these norms in, where it's psychologically safe to have conflict and discussion."

So how does one go about creating a dynamic where arguments are welcomed — and constructive? "The research is pretty clear that women have to walk a fairly narrow path, whether they're being assertive or aggressive, and that problem for women is trickier than it is for men," Hill says. "It's very, very tough, and not fair." Here, some of Hill's tips on creative safe spaces for debate, and how to deal when labels like "pushy" and "prickly" are pushed on you. 

Be Extremely Clear About The Problem
More often than not, arguments occur because conflicting parties misunderstand the objective at hand. "One of the things to set the stage for discussion is to clarify, very explicitly, what the purpose of the conversation is," Hill says. Talk about why you are working together on an issue, and what the ideal outcome will be. "A lot of conflict comes up because we are not talking about the same thing in the first place," she says. "If you know that you are both focused on the same purpose, solving the problem is much easier."

Approach An Argument As A Learning Experience 
"In organizations where debate and innovation happens, people are basically taking a learning approach, where it's not about winning or proving that you're right," Hill says. "It's about learning together what the best solution is." When both parties put aside pride and realize the end goal is not about being right, debates tend to be a bit more constructive. 

It can get tricky when dealing with your peers, Hill says, especially since you might be gunning for the same promotion. To help gain their trust, make sure they know you see things from their perspective as well. "I'd ask a peer a few questions about what they're working on, and talk about what you're working on, and it helps build a relationship with them," Hill says. "You share what you're trying to do, and show you don't have a hidden agenda."

Advocate For Your Point Of View

Just because the argument isn't about being right doesn't mean you aren't correct in some aspects, so you have to be comfortable arguing and standing up for your opinions. You just have to go about it a different way. "One of the dilemmas is that discussions do require us being more comfortable inquiring and actively listening," Hill says. "But, when we're advocating for our point of view, we have to be much more explicit about what our assumptions are, and why our way might be the way to go. This allows people to understand your point of view and keeps the conversation from being personal."

Ask For Feedback
"Trust is a lot about perception," Hill says. "And, if I'm trying to exercise influence with you, I have to pay attention to what kind of evidence you need in terms of my competence and character." Oftentimes, this can be fixed by simply asking what it is you can do to make them feel more comfortable. "It's not easy for people to get feedback on how they're perceived, but if you know people have perceived you in that way, even if it's not 'fair,' you can start there and figure out what adjustments to make," Hill says.

Even if the feedback isn't necessarily constructive, some good can come out of those discussions. "I remember once with a senior colleague, I could tell from our nonverbal communication that she didn't appreciate the way I was behaving in meetings," Hill says. "When I went to her and said, 'I don't think you're happy with me, can you give me advice,' she said, 'You have more influence than me and I want you to be quiet.'"

The resulting discussion wasn't technically collaborative, but when both parties clarified what was needed to get to the next level, they problem-solved together to figure out the right approach to get things done. "I said, 'I understand you want to be seen as a leader, and I can help you with that, but we have to problem-solve together,'" Hill says. "It's not always going to be about people liking you, but you do want them to respect and trust you."

Stand Up For Others
"We as women have just as much bias against other women," Hill says. "So, if I see a meeting going wrong, where people are seeing a woman as being too aggressive, I'll actually intervene on her behalf." Sometimes someone else is taking credit for something another woman says, or there's some behind-the-back talk, but others' perceptions should not get in the way of progress.

"We don't want style to ever get in the way of substance," Hill says. "I might ask a woman in a meeting, you seem to feel strongly about this, can you step back and tell us more about that conclusion? Or, I will correct others and give credit to the right people, like, 'As Susan pointed out...'"

If It Gets Too Heated, Take A Step Back
If you're passionate about something, the argument is going to get heated. The first step is to remember exactly what it is you're trying to accomplish, and figure out what is getting in your way. "If someone sees me as too aggressive, I can be much more explicit about why I'm doing what I'm doing and why I think the way I do," Hill says. "And, if it gets too heated, you might have to put a hold on the conversation, and return to it later."

Ultimately, if open discussion isn't happening, and your environment is getting in the way of progress, it's worth looking at why the conditions aren't working for your success. "You want to match intent with impact, and if it's not matching, then that's a problem for me, not just the other person," Hill says. "And, I take myself out of situations where I discover that over time, I start to become who I don't want to be. Life is too short."
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