“She needs to find her voice,” the CEO said. “Petra hardly says a word in meetings, even when it pertains to Human Resources.” Petra is the Vice President of HR and leads a team of 52 personnel. She is one of three women on a 21-person executive leadership team.
In our initial individual executive coaching session, Petra told me she is most effective in one-to-one conversations. But she’s introverted, and that introversion along with her boss’ criticism, didn’t make her feel confident about speaking up in their executive team meetings.
Petra is correct; it takes courage and confidence to speak in front of groups.
In U.S. culture, “the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there,’”(1)
On top of that, men’s dominance is apparent in popular media. Books, movies, games and music feature men and boys two to three times more often as protagonists. And men, overwhelmingly white, hold roughly 70-73% of the roles in top U.S. films, on-screen and off. That gender breakdown in films is equally skewed in other countries.(2)
The fact that men garner twice as much speaking and screen time applies equally in our day-to-day lives. Studies indicate parents and teachers interrupt their girls twice as much as their boys.(2)
This reality takes a toll on women. The most fundamental bias we face, the one underlying all the others, is the message that women are not inherently worth listening to as much as men. This message takes its toll on women as gaslighting and self-denial tend to do; we pay with an internal dialogue of self-criticism: You’re not smart enough, not pretty enough, not a good enough mother, not a good enough professional.(2) This message, along with the push to be bold and comfortable in the spotlight, can crush women’s confidence.
This message takes its toll on organizations too. Without acknowledging the unique perspective of women and introverts and without seeing them as an asset, companies lose out on the value their diverse voices promise.
And because we don’t want to go against cultural norms and upset a status quo that favors extroverted male voices, leaders inadvertently silence and sideline dissenting opinions and different perspectives, including introverts’ and women’s. As a result, we’re often blind to the cultural systems in our organizations that keep women feeling left out or pushed out. This is opposite of cultural intelligence.(3)
Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and adapt our behavior to show genuine respect across cultural differences, including gender and personality types like introversion.
Back to Petra’s story
Because introverts prefer think time, I texted Petra the morning before our afternoon meeting. “In preparation for our executive coaching session, please think of three takeaways and their examples from the last 10 months of working together.” I wanted to hear from her how we’d made a difference in her life and leadership.
At the start of the meeting, I asked her, “What are your takeaways from our coaching conversations?”
Petra said, “My first takeaway is now I know it’s natural to judge; I don’t need to be so tough on myself. My brain judges others to protect me. That’s how I know to get out of situations that aren’t safe. But if I’m not careful, my judgment can block me from fully hearing a person. My judgment isn’t wrong but it is limited based on my background and experience, that creates my bias. What I need to do is slow down, notice my assumption and then recognize there’s almost always more to the story.”
I asked her for an example. Petra explained, “There are three leaders in transition and vying for one job now. I may not totally understand why they’re reacting the way they are and it makes me feel judgmental. But when I slow down, I realize I can’t really criticize their behavior because I’ve never been in their situation. I can only imagine how hard it must be for them.”
I asked, “How does this perspective help?”
Petra said, “When I was talking with the leaders, after delivering the bad news that their positions were being eliminated, I said, “I recognized how hard this must be.” I told them I’m here if they want to talk or have questions. Two of the leaders did circle back. I think it was because I was able to withhold my judgment and hear them out that they felt safe to come back.
“My second takeaway is that I’m not thinking everyone has to be 100% on board. A person, or even a situation, can be okay even if they’re not all wonderful. No one or situation is all good or bad. Nothing is going to be perfect.”
I said, “It sounds like you’re upending the perfectionism that’s rampant in our culture. We think everything has to be just right or just so to be valued or valuable. (Petra nodded.) With that pressure off, it seems like you’re accepting your own and other’ humanity, all messiness and beauty in there together.”
Petra said, “I am. An example is one of my direct reports needed to talk with the Chief Financial Officer; she felt uneasy about the conversation. I suggested that she look at it from his perspective. Everything in his world has to add up; it’s either black, white or red.”
I said, “Sounds like you were teaching cultural intelligence, teaching her to accept the CFO where he is and adapt her words to meet him there. How’d their conversation go?”
Petra said, “That’s exactly what I was doing. My direct-report told me she felt the conversation went well. The CFO responded well to her idea. I felt good about how I’d helped her reframe their conversation.”
Petra said, “The third takeaway is I’m learning to affirm others.”
I said, “It seems like you were doing that before, no?”
Petra said, “Well now I’m more intentional about it. I used to think, because I don’t need affirmation, neither do other people. It was harsh and I know differently now.”
I asked, “What’s affirmation to you?”
Petra said, “Affirmation is accepting people where they are and where they’re hurting. It’s letting the other person know it’s okay to be where they are. An example is a friend of mine, whose son just came out to her as gay. I had a chance to listen to her express how hard it has been. I practiced being okay with where she is and affirmed her feelings. Because another friend of hers had launched into her own story to relate without really hearing her concern, my friend told me she was grateful I’d really listened.”
I asked Petra, “How do these takeaways impact your leadership?”
Petra said, “I feel more confident in the input that I’m giving. (She was quiet and thoughtful.) I feel more confident in my style; the way I lead is good for me and my team. (More quiet.) I feel confident in my humanity. I’m okay with how I am, with who I am.”
I said, “Do you recall, you and your boss initially hired me to help you find your voice? (Petra nodded.) All these months, we’ve never talked about you finding your voice. Instead, we affirmed you and your leadership style. Then I gave you tools based on your style of leadership. Have you found your voice?”
Petra said, “Yes, I have. I’m speaking at least 40% more than I used to. But I don’t just talk to talk; I talk when it’s necessary. When I do speak now, I’m confident. Also, my boss has dropped telling me I need to find my voice.”
I said, “That’s great to hear! I appreciate the affirmation. (Petra smiled.) Speaking of affirmation, I appreciate you suggesting that I shift my language about teaching cultural intelligence to incorporate the words ‘leadership training’ and call my work ‘culturally intelligent leadership training.’”
Petra said, “It’s what you’re really doing, Dr. Amy. (She paused.) Well, it is and it isn’t leadership training.”
I asked, “How is and isn’t this work leadership training?”
Petra said, “It’s not the kind of leadership training where someone is telling you how you should be or lead. This is leadership training where I get to be my authentic self. You’ve helped me lead in a way that’s genuine and meaningful for me. This is culturally intelligent leadership training.”
Petra was accepted as the leader she is and given tools relevant and valuable for her style of leadership. That’s what allowed her to discover her confidence and ultimately her voice as a leader in the organization. -Amy Narishkin, PhD
Who do you know in your network that would like to discover their voice as a powerful and compassionate leader? Please share this link with them.
- Cook, G. (Jan 24, 2012) Scientific American, “The power of introverts: A manifesto for quiet brilliance.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-power-of-introverts/
- Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, New York: Atria Books
- Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
- Photo by Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash.