Recently, I was surprised by a discussion I had with fifteen Director/VP-level leaders about perception. The topic was speaking up in meetings and having your voice heard, which is a common challenge for women in the workplace. This group of talented female leaders lamented—and then debated—what was better: to show up and give opinions and ideas early in the meeting or to hold back, processing and picking strategic spots to offer suggestions.
As it turned out, the debate wasn’t much of a debate. Surprisingly, 100% of the group preferred to hold back, even if it meant they were perceived as less confident or shy. Why? Because pushing to get their voice in the room first also had negative repercussions. It was worse to be perceived as too aggressive, bold, or pushy than to be thought of as timid or unprepared. There was no good option, so the women were opting for the one they believed was less damaging. In other words: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Perception backlash is an age-old dilemma and double bind women and underrepresented leaders face. It is damaging for leaders of all levels trying to get their voice in the room. This is just one example of where psychological safety is missing from the workplace, and, as a result, the performance of the individual and the company suffers.
If you are constantly monitoring what you are saying and how you say it, then you are losing a lot of energy you could be giving to your role.
Fortunately, putting your voice out with a strongly articulated opinion is not the only way to be heard. As the CEO of Signature Leaders, after personally meeting and graduating over 2,300 female leaders, I have been fortunate to learn some excellent and effective strategies for making an impact in meetings while escaping perception backlash.
What can you do? Here are three ideas to rethink your approach:
- Ask open-ended but critical questions.
Before attending the meeting, do your homework. Find out what’s on the agenda. What are the hot button issues? For example, you might have been invited to the meeting to give a financial report – but that doesn’t mean you need to limit your commentary to this issue. As other high priority issues are brought up, ask a great critical question. Use open-ended questions starting with how or what. “What was the most critical data seen driving the new strategy?” “How will it impact the talent requirement going forward?” Executives don’t expect you to be subject matter expert, but they value good questions that spark conversations or reveal something critical to discuss.
- Bring in outside expertise.
Even if you are not the subject matter expert in the meeting, you can bring in an outside expert perspective. For example, let’s say your company is implementing a new technology system. You have a friend outside the business whose company just implemented the same product. Call them and ask about their experience. What was their biggest barrier? What should they have anticipated sooner? Then, when your meeting pops up, you can chime in with your findings. “The X company recently implemented this technology and found this barrier. Have we had insight to this as a problem?” At best, your findings can have a materially helpful impact. At the least, your willingness to do research shows you are thinking about the enterprise beyond your specific role.
- Seed a question with a helping hand.
This strategy relies on having a friend in the room, particularly a friend who has some power. Given that women are often reluctant to speak in meetings, I coach the executive leaders who come through my program and serves as mentors and sponsors to create opportunities for their junior employees to speak. Ask questions you know your mentee has the answer to help get their voice into the room.
The best thing about breaking the ice and getting your voice out there, is that once you start speaking up in meetings and hearing your own voice, it gets easier. You will be surprised by how comfortable you become as you build up that muscle. In addition, as you move up in leadership, you are being paid (and expected) to provide a point of view—yes, even a dissenting one.