This article was originally published on the Forbes blog.
Have you heard about the “Witch with a B” Factor? This is the all-important, yet rarely spoken about, tightrope that women walk daily. The tightrope of being powerful, but not too powerful; of being authoritative, but not too authoritative; of being influential, but not too influential (how can that be?). As leaders, we want, and need, to be accurate, authentic, definitive, dependable, proven and trustworthy. Do you agree? Interestingly, all these words are synonyms of authoritative.
People frequently tell me, “If I speak the way you’re telling me to speak, it’s going to come back to bite me. People are going to call me a b*tch.” Or “How can it be that a man can talk like that and be forceful and authoritative and driving and determined — but I speak that way and I’m called bossy or too aggressive?” I hear this all the time.
As women, we have a smaller amplitude to play with before we enter this too aggressive space. There is a more accepted level for men to be aggressive. We hear men described as too aggressive far less often than women.
This is known as a likeability bias. This bias often appears when referring to female leaders. Think of a time you had an initial negative reaction to a female leader who spoke in a direct and assertive manner. That negative thought is the likeability bias. Think about the last conversation you had around promoting a colleague. This likeability bias plays a big part. Who are you more likely to support — the individual who is well-liked by colleagues, or the individual who does not get along with colleagues and junior staff? Be conscious of when your likeability bias shows up.
Don’t worry — it is only in your head. The most important piece is that you recognize this bias in yourself. Question yourself: Why are you thinking this way? What do you need to remind yourself so your likeability bias does not continue? Your first thought does not need to be your last. We can appreciate the same skills and strengths in a male leader as we can in a female.
Women face a double bind with this. They play a penalty if they are too nice, which makes them appear weak or less competent. There is a historical pattern and expectation that women are first well-liked and secondly effective. Too often this is a subconscious expectation for people.
I am never going to tell you to play a man’s game, but instead, I strongly recommend you create your own rules. Yes, create your own rules in an unfair game. Three rules to follow:
1. Pay attention to your tone. Make sure your tone matches your intentions. Your tone is the difference between coming across as too arrogant and coming across as confident. You spend all day trying to influence people around you, whether it’s increasing your budget, or hiring you, or accepting your unique idea. By paying attention to your tone, you influence people. If you’re feeling frustrated, if you’re angry, if something’s not going your way, you’re not able to influence the way you want to. If you allow those emotions to steer your tone, people will remember that tone and frustration, not your great idea.
2. Increase your amplitude. As women, we are often penalized with a large amplitude. If we are too high, we enter the “Witch with a B” space. If we are too low on this amplitude, we’re meek. Either way, we’re not impressive. Men have a larger amplitude to play with. Play within your amplitude. The B*tch Factor is key to influencing others. Create your own rules within that space. This might sound like, “Hey, I really need your help. How can we get the information we need to deliver this report by Monday?” As opposed to, “Listen, this is due on Monday. It has to get done and I need you to do these three pieces.” Who wants to play that game? The difference is in your tone.
3. Let your words set the tone. Some of the most influential leaders have a calming force. They don’t need to raise the volume of their voice or their message, but rather are deliberate with their words. You’re likely to see an increase in your impact when you’re using the right tone and words. You know your culture. You know the players. You know who you’re trying to influence. Adjust your tone. Use declarative words. Your message will be different for each person you speak to. It’s a bit of a game to figure out what is that exact right tone. Play your game.
Pay attention to the words you use to sound confident. Speak with conviction. Use strong leadership language. Encourage inclusion in the discussion and decision-making. And then you will lead with influence and authority.