Inclusive leadership. Really? How exactly?

As a leader, do you manage conversations which genuinely safeguard space for difference?

Do your diverse teams stay diverse, or do team members collapse into the corporate monoculture they see around them?

What are you doing to take “inclusive leadership” off the policy documents and into the way you manage your meetings?

These questions have emerged from my analysis of the dynamics of power in spoken interactions where my research participants, leaders all, invited me to spend time studying them and their linguistic behaviour in a variety of corporate settings. Their motivation? To better understand themselves and their leadership in order to affect change.

Although the name we give to a different kind of leadership depends on the setting (collaborative…inclusive…balanced…responsible…) we mostly know what we want:

  • We need the sort of leaders who can handle difference.
  • We need leaders who are flexible, open, and who are able to hear perspectives quite different from their own.
  • We need leaders who can connect and collaborate in settings which are marked by difference, and where this difference is seen to be a good thing.

There are two main arguments behind the now commonplace calls for a more inclusive kind of leadership.

The first relates to the times we live in where turbulence has become the new normal. To thrive we need enormously creative and diverse teams who can question the way things are done, who challenge, experiment, innovate. Leadership here doesn’t rely on command and control; it requires a radically new approach.

The second relates to equality and to the moral stance we take. A working culture which genuinely values and promotes groups and individuals who don’t fit the dominant corporate mould is not just a nice to have – it’s the right thing to do.

But how exactly do we do this kind of leadership?

Traditional assumptions about leadership (who gets to do it, how it should get done, who is included and who isn’t) are particularly hard to shift. In part this is because we tend to conflate our notions of “leader” with the way we define “leadership”. But the complexity and diversity I have seen in leadership practice in my research, isn’t adequately captured by theories which assume that leadership is entirely an individual affair. Too frequently, commonplace ideas about leadership have us focus on fixing individuals, attempting to shape their thinking and therefore their behaviour. But does this best serve our purposes? The wave of unconscious bias training that has swept the corporate world provides people with important insights but it has not (yet) created the sort of leadership we yearn for. And part of this is due to the fact that the very phenomena we seek to change is not the sole domain of individuals. Leadership isn’t a person, it’s a relationship. We need more and better theories which help us conceptualise and work with leadership’s more collective aspects.

The dynamics of difference research attempts this by taking language as a point of entry – the complex conversational dynamics where we see, or more frequently sense, the tiny shifts and movements which send a whole conversation veering off course, or where an unexpected interruption closes down the creative space, or where a decision ends up in the hands of the chair because no one spoke up.

If leadership resides in these every day patterns of spoken interaction, we aren’t going to learn enough about shifting them by looking only at what individual leaders do or say.

I have many hours of recordings and transcripts of corporate management meetings and conversations and I will be spending the coming weeks and months carefully analysing these to see what I can learn about leadership from these every day patterns of interaction.

I suspect that the tiniest of conversational moves creates the most surprising changes, but we shall see.

In the meantime you might like to try a few micro-moves yourself. If you usually find yourself having the last word, try letting someone else have it. If you are quick to steer and intervene, slowly count to three before you speak. If you like to summarise proceedings, ask a question instead.

Do something ever so slightly different, and watch what happens.



On being invisible

Do I only feel invisible, or am I actually not there?

I injured my knee recently and had to spend a couple of weeks on crutches. In order to get to a meeting a short flight away, I needed to arrange assistance. I learned such a lot from this experience. I have nothing but praise for the professionals who helped me on and off various modes of transport – they were cheerful, caring, attentive and thoughtful.

I didn’t feel quite the same way about the general public.

People looked over the top of the wheelchair, stood right in the way of the mobility buggy chatting away on their mobile phones, nipped into seats before I could limp there –  and even butted right into the middle of a conversation I was having with the person assisting me. I have never felt so unseen. There would be lots to say here about navigating a world designed for the fully mobile, but this is a blog about language.

Many of the women in my research project described episodes or moments of feeling unseen. Not all the time of course, but an important enough issue to raise nonetheless. (And just to be clear here… I am not saying men don’t also experience episodes of feeling invisible; only that there were no men in my sample.)

Juliana, a marketing manager in a global manufacturer said, “I feel that because I do not have seniority, my comments are not welcome. I feel like I lack influence – and I’m not sure it’s because of my experience or because I am not able to get ideas through”.

And Anna went further, “The plant’s CEO was presenting and senior management present jumped in whenever they had a question. I tried to do the same but my voice was too soft. Perhaps the way I put my questions seemed rather hesitating as if I was not sure if the question was legitimate or ridiculous.”

Do these women only feel invisible, or are they in someway actually not seen?

What I am finding in my research is that reflective accounts of how meetings are experienced, bear little or no resemblance to what it has actually been possible to analyse in the transcripts of such meetings. Invisibility is hard to spot, of course.

Let me give just a few examples to illustrate my point. In four 30 minute episodes of recorded, natural talk at work – a brainstorm, an routine management meeting, an action planning session and an international conference call – on average, just under half of the people present in the room or on the call, are visible in the transcript.

Here’s one example. The first table gives a snapshot of who is doing the talking overall in an international conference call I have been analysing. [NB. lines and are number of transcribed lines on the page and turns represent each new speaker].

Team members Lines % Turns %
Business unit director



Team 1 (4 engineers)



Team 2 (6 supplier interface)



Unidentified or inaudible



The engineers hold the floor, followed closely by the person in chair, and the supplier interface bring up the rear both in terms of the length of time they were speaking and the number of times they got a turn to speak. This is the pattern that the director recalled after the call – it felt more or less right – and it is a pattern she would like to change.

And look at the picture when we can see exactly who is speaking and for how long. What is made visible here is that in fact, the director and the leader of team 1 were occupying over half of the time and space in this meeting. [F = female, M = male]

Participant Total lines > 1 Total lines < 1 As a % of total [1050 lines] Total turns As a % of total [403 turns]
Director (F)






Leader 1 (F)






Team 1 (F)






Leader 2 (F)






Team 2 (F)






Team 2 (M)






Team 1 (M)






Team 2 (F)






Team 1 (M)






Team 2 (M)






Team 2 (F)






That may be a good thing, of course depending on the people, the task, the constraints and a whole host of other conditions. The meaning is always contextual and it is impossible generalise from a snapshot – but it certainly raises some interesting questions. It would appear that in my samples, more than half of those invited to meetings – presumably because they can contribute in some way – are not heard either because they say less than others, or nothing at all. In this particular sample, as you can see from the table, this dynamic is not directly related to gender. On this occasion, of the seven lowest contributors, four were men and all originated from countries outside Western Europe and North America.

In these samples who gets seen and heard is of course, patterned by gender, culture, expertise, hierarchical position and power. But here’s the thing – my experience of travelling in a wheelchair forced me to see an aspect of the world that I had previously known but that was in someway invisible to me – the fact that the world is structured for the fully mobile. If you are not this ‘fully mobile ideal person’, you exist on a different plane – one where, to all intents and purposes, you are invisible to those who move about without assistance.

The examples of analysis of talk at work suggest that there is a conversational equivalent. People see others, hear ideas, notice and take account of the conversational behaviour of people who more or less fit within their implicit ideas of how meetings work. Others, who “choose” to remain silent, are unseen, unheard and structurally invisible.

Simply put, our routine interactions tend to recycle sameness – and this is bad news for diversity and inclusion.

My point here is not that silence is powerless – silence can be powerful in all sorts of ways. I’m drawing attention to the enormous weight of conversational norms. I hadn’t been able to see that my everyday attitude to moving about in the world was part of a powerful and exclusionary norm until I wasn’t inside it any more.

When the women in the research describe being invisible, it is usually when they reflect upon their identities as women, noting as they do so, that this doesn’t sit comfortably with their identities as managers and leaders. They find themselves in a situation, as I did during my travel assistance, where they are made suddenly and acutely aware of their difference to the norm.

And if things weren’t already complicated enough, this is because the (masculine, Anglo Saxon, English speaking) norm favoured by the business world, is itself usually “invisible”.

But for the sake of “diversity and inclusion” let’s at least talk about it.



The question of questions

Should you ask them? When should you ask them? How should you ask them? How often should you ask them?

Questions seem to carry a public health warning for women.

From way back in the early seventies when connections between women and language were beginning to be voiced; when in 1975 Robyn Lackoff wrote ‘Language and a Woman’s Place‘, and long before anyone had even heard of speaking styles from Mars and Venus, women have been warned about their use of questions. This advice, supposedly based on how women use language, goes something like this:

Don’t use tag questions – they make you sound insecure and uncertain. (For example – “You think that would work, don’t you?”)

Do ask open questions – they encourage your interlocutor to give detailed answers. (For example – “How do you see that working?” Rather than, “Do you think that will work?”)

Don’t use negative questions – they make you sound negative too. (For example – “Don’t you think that would fail?” Rather than, “Do you think that would succeed?”)

In the paper and on-line self-help literature there is somewhat of an obsession with the questions women ask, the types of questions they ask, how many questions they ask, what tone of voice they use to ask their questions – the implication being that if women change the way they speak, they will be more effective leaders and managers.

This advice adds to (and maybe even creates) a widely shared belief among the women participants in my research, that the way they speak more or less naturally, is perceived as weak and ineffectual – and that they need to change it. And of course, making subtle shifts in style, tone and language does alter the way you come across and as such can make you feel small and insignificant – or substantial and confident.

However, much of this popular advice comes from a time when it was common to analyse language and its use, not from recordings of actual interaction, but from controlled situations, from memory and even from a writer’s imagination. As I have pointed out before in the this blog, the evidence from research based on actual recordings of people interacting at work (and not on how we think they do it) challenges some of these now familiar linguistic landmarks. For example, now there has been far more analysis of naturally occurring talk, it turns out that women, people in fact, use tag questions for all sorts of purposes and not, as Robyn Lackoff once proposed, mainly because they are uncertain or seeking approval.

It is of course, far more complicated than the sound bites suggest. The range of meanings an open question can convey is very wide. It depends on the speaker, the context, and the power the speaker does or doesn’t have and it is this last point that is so significant for how women are stereotypically perceived. Does your intention always match the result? And if it doesn’t, is that because the way you speak makes you powerless? Or is it precisely because you are relatively powerless in a particular situation, that you speak the way you do?

Let’s face it – if when you ask a lot of questions, you are perceived as interested, ill-informed or just plain stupid depends on a lot more than the formal structure of the sentence.

The trouble with normative prescriptive nostrums such as “don’t use negative questions” or  “use open questions” is that they are free of power and context. Open questions are not always so open. “How does that seem?” may (depending on the context and in particular the power relations between the speakers), be used for a whole range of things including a put down, a criticism, a threat, a suggestion, an ironic aside, or even a genuine open question.

But there is something really troubling me. When I talk to professional women about the gender and language research I am reading, their response, as often as not, is to look politely doubtful. Their experience speaks to them differently and it simply isn’t helpful for me to articulate ideas which seem to fly in the face of this. So recently I have been listening to recordings of conversations at work with this in mind to try to identify elements of (power and) language use which do resonate with the research group.

The conversations I am analysing are run-of-the-mill, standard, unremarkable workplace interactions in the course of getting work done – and they are fascinating. In the smallest of conversational moves, together people shape their working climate and environment. Just as the way work gets done is structured (some things are unquestionable givens while others offer a bit of wriggle room to do things differently) so it is with workplace talk. And it turns out that questions have an important role to play in this balancing act between reproducing and changing the way things get done.

I took three samples – a group SWOT analysis, a regular face-to-face management meeting and an international conference call – and transcribed and analysed the interaction to see what people were doing with questions. In all three of the meetings the person with the most formal power was a woman who was also explicitly interested in finding ways of making workplace conversations more inclusive and balanced.

What I discovered surprised me. Although the leaders of the meetings were sensitive to how they might influence meetings dynamics, in the main they did not. In fact, they found themselves, much as all the other participants in their meetings, bound by the conversational routines and expectations about what makes a SWOT analysis, a management meeting or a conference call. Each of these is a different type of conversation – and this matters because each has rules and routines that we simply take for granted, and in the main, don’t break.

These are only three short samples of language so I don’t want to overstate my case, but I wasn’t able to able to identify ‘insecurity’ from a question tag, or confidence from a direct question, or gender from any kind of question. In these conversations it wasn’t what any one person said that gave me any insight into how power and language worked, it was the way that the people worked together in small and subtle ways to keep the conversation steady, and to keep the group on track doing whatever kind of conversation everyone was agreed that they were doing. Questions were overwhelmingly used (in these samples) to gently nudge the conversation along or get it back on track.

What surprised us – me as a researcher and my partners as managers – was just how predictably routine these interactions are. Very little happens in the talk to challenge the way things get done. One of the participants was quite shocked, “But we never ask each other any really penetrating or interesting questions. I don’t know why we talk so much about innovation – all we do is stop each other from going off script!

It’s worth remembering. If we choose to spend any time at all asking ourselves endless questions about the questions we ask, let’s make sure we are challenging each other to ask better questions and not judging ourselves for the way we ask them.

Talking power

Have you ever wondered where the power to make things happen actually resides?

Me too.

That’s why I embarked on a PhD. I wanted to learn more about the relationship between language, interaction and conversational dynamics of power.

Who gets to speak, how often and about what topic are related to the way things get done. But how? And how can we influence it? These are the questions that motivate me. Is there is a way of making these subtle dynamics more tangible so everyone can appreciate how powerful hidden patterns of talk really are, then perhaps people would be able to make tiny shifts in language and interaction with the power to transform conversational imbalance.

So recently, when I was challenged by Dynamics of Difference research participants to say what I am learning, it seemed a good time to answer:

I’m learning how power gets talked into place in everyday interactions.

I’m learning what professional women are saying about their experiences of power at work. First, simply being there – being included and present in important interactions without either being excluded, or excluding oneself. Jolanta, a senior analyst in a global professional services firm says, “I want to come out of the place of hiding, behind the numbers, come out and be seen. I know if you’re not seen, you’re not promoted and I want to get some space for myself.”

Then, reflecting on past conversations, on what has been said, what might have being said, and what still remains unspoken, different aspects of being me come under the microscope. Melody, a designer in a country where she still feels very much a foreigner explains, “I need to make my presence felt but not in the local overbearing way. I can’t fake it. I want to be genuine. I want to make things works better but without being uncomfortable and not being myself.”

And finally, being different complicates the issue of what to say and how to say it. Maria, an HR manager for southern Europe reflects, “Non-native speakers have less credibility that they deserve. The best English speakers get their action plans approved. It takes my energy away. It’s not just that the native speakers take over – although they do that a lot. We give up. We sit back and let them get on with it.”

And there is much more to this than meets the eye. The experience of power itself becomes a series of difficult linguistic choices about how to present oneself as a professional, a manager, and a leader.

You want to be there – be seen, heard and present – so should you speak up and say what’s on your mind? What if you speak out of turn? What if speaking makes you too visible? What if you are visible for the ‘wrong’ reasons? Does that undermine your influence? Does that depend on who you are in the first place? How do you strike the right balance?

You want to be yourself, to express who you are, but the norm of business meetings demands a particular way of doing business. A style that for some either doesn’t feel authentic or isn’t effective. So should you be faster, harsher, more direct, aggressive? Would that work? Would that bring you respect? Or can you be yourself, let yourself be softer and more gentle from time to time? Will you still be listened to? Will your voice be heard?

You want to be different  – because you are different –  but you also want to fit in. Not fitting in so much that you lose yourself and what you believe in, but blending enough to be part of the way things get done. But if you are part of the way things get done, can you resist things, really change them? Can you do both? Can you fit in and be different?

These are not straightforward questions.

When what’s at stake is your identity, your self-respect and your influence, making these split second, spur of the moment linguistic choices really counts.

I am moving into a new phase in my research, one in which I will examine such choices in more depth. Working with the data from the project I will be looking at the features the research participants have drawn my attention to: the conversational floor – turn taking and how this is organised, how conversational transitions are sequenced and managed, how (some) people are brought in (or shut out); what people are using language for and how well they achieve their goals – how they agree and disagree, interrupt, stay silent, attend to politeness, directness, and appropriacy.

These features and more, influence the course of a conversation and so influence what gets heard, what gets done and who gets to take the decisions. Try watching out for them. If we are more aware of linguistic features and conversational patterns, we have more choices about being present, authentic and different – and successful – even though it happens at the speed of light.


Leading a balanced conversation

“It’s only a simple brainstorm – it isn’t a power thing – everyone gets to speak.”

Do they?

The Dynamics of Difference participants think otherwise.

Imagine the scene. You’ve gathered your team together to inject some energy into your initiative.  You run a multi-national team, most of your meetings are virtual so it’s important to make the best of being in the same room together.

Let’s make the best of this opportunity,” you say. “I’d like us to share our thoughts about really getting some energy behind this initiative. So, what do you all think? Let’s share some ideas. I’ll capture them; go ahead.

A speaks for her department’s pet plan

B spots this, answers her and (very subtly) disagrees

A counters – the subtle disagreement was so not very subtle after all

B draws breath…

You “Thank you. Let’s have some different ideas.”

A ten second silence which feels like half an hour

You “What’s your take on this C?”

C speaks quietly about a third position

A counters

B counters A

A disagrees

You intervene…

And so it goes on. Participants D to G [from southern Europe] eventually get a word in, but participants H to J [from Pacific rim countries] don’t say anything.

This is not only a question of native speaker fluency and communicative competence (although that matters, of course), it is also about what we consider to be normal and unremarkable about the way we converse, or hold a meeting, or do a quick brainstorm of ideas. We tend to see these mechanisms as completely transparent and value free. This is because we take the norms for granted

Let’s take an example.

Everyone knows how to do a brainstorm. It is intended as a participative way of leading a meeting in which it is possible to make more space for more people to speak out and have their ideas heard. Indeed, most of us would be able to take up the pen and would know when the rules are not being followed.

Here’s how it usually works:

  • Someone takes the pen and invites others to offer up ideas freely (no judgement or argument allowed);
  • All the ideas are of equal value – the aim is to get the ideas flowing;
  • When everyone has said what they would like to say, everyone in the group makes sense of what is recorded.

Or at least that’s how it works in theory. In practice, having everyone make sense of what has been recorded is not so straight forward. This is because in fact, the rules don’t guarantee that everyone is heard in equal measure or interpreted in the same way. Some people are given (or take) more turns than others; and some do not make their voices heard at all.

We observe these patterns of interaction and assign possible meanings to them. It can be inferred, for example, that someone who does not speak has nothing to say; or it may be assumed that members of the group do not want to hear what they imagine she has to say – or any number of other social meanings that can be assigned to this pattern.

Similarly, a brainstorm participant who dominates the conversational floor by taking every opportunity to speak may be read as a strong leader, a domineering team member, or a native speaker of English, depending on a whole range of contextual factors including the perspectives, interests and political agendas of everyone else involved.

In fact, your average brainstorm can turn out to be a conversation where the person with the pen holds the power to decide who gets to speak. The same old loud voices get heard, and the record of what was said is skewed in favour of one or other department, one or other point of view. People shout out their ideas and perspectives from the point of view of their individual and group interests – and then jockey for position in the overall “product” of the brainstorm – because we all know that the record counts.

So what if the record was more inclusive? How might we do that? Bearing in mind that absolutely nothing is value free, we might imagine different rules with different effects.

Imagine, for example, that after generating a board full of ideas you ask, “OK, so I’d like to invite the different groups here (marketing, sales, finance, engineering…or whatever) to choose five of these ideas on behalf of the whole group – the things that matter most to everyone here.”

You’d probably witness another of those silences that seems like half an hour.

People are not accustomed to being asked to articulate what might be in the interests of other groups. More frequently we imagine the question of what is in the interests of the whole group to mean just my group. The fact that most groups can’t do this exercise is because they don’t actually know what the other groups see as priority issues.

So what needs to happen next?

People need to ask each other a limited number of very carefully crafted questions. If, when the groups call out their priorities (after having listened very carefully to what the others have to say), you choose to circle the important priorities of each group in a different colour of marker pen, you will see where the groups’ interests diverge and overlap.

That’s actually the common ground – a place we often can’t see because the accepted, unchallenged patterns of conversation obscure our view. And unless we call these out, the exclusionary processes and effects that go with them, will also remain invisible.


Do women speak differently?

It is time for me to grasp the nettle.

When I am asked if women speak differently from men, I often have the uneasy feeling that I am dodging the question. “Well, yes and no,” I usually begin before I edge my way into an answer that people don’t seem to want to hear.

Before I do that here, let’s look at some of the big, popular ideas about how men and women use language:

First, there are significant differences in the way men and women use language;

Second, men’s style of communication is more competitive (men are interested in status) and women’s style is more collaborative (they’re interested in relationships);

And these differences cause problems of miscommunication which, if we knew more about each other’s ways of communicating, we could fix.

Let’s take a closer look at how this argument works. Girls and boys tend to play in own sex groups and are thus socialised into different ways of conducting their conversations. Put simply, boys jostle for position and get used to challenging and being challenged, whereas girls, in their talking type of play, learn a more co-operative style.

These style preferences impact their relative success at work. So for example, a young women working in a competitive business environment hasn’t learned to defend herself against the inevitable status challenges. She interprets them as put downs and goes quiet. But for a young man this is second nature. His difficulty is in picking up the signals that someone around the table is being excluded. He interprets her silence as a sign of weakness.

Obviously, I am exaggerating here to show the extremes, something any sensible person who has been in conversations daily for 20 years (or more) would instantly recognise. Not all women are wimps just as not all men are Neanderthals. Nevertheless, the discussions on this topic at English and Power workshops and events, suggest that people are divided on the issue.

Intuitively, it rings true that women and men have different speaking styles as Marianne, a senior manager in global telecoms explains,

Do women prefer a different style? Absolutely, they do. In my experience women rarely go for an aggressive or boasting style. They prefer a more open way of interacting. But the way we speak in our company isn’t as cooperative as I would like it to be. For example no one has any doubts – or at least nobody can show they have any doubts. No one even asks any questions. Everything has to be seen to be clear. So I have to be clear – I can’t express any doubts even if I have questions because I don’t want to appear stupid.”

At the same time, when people get the chance to compare notes and discuss the issue in more depth, most come to the view that speaking styles are not so clearly divided into male and female speakers.

In fact, when I read out a random sentence, one I overheard in a Brussels cafe:

Well, I wouldn’t really call myself an expert, I just Google it and see what comes up.”,

people often become aware of their “first” impression, something along the lines of,

I think it must be a women because they are doing themselves down and weakening what they say by using ‘just’.”

But by talking in groups about what they really think, it soon becomes clear that it isn’t possible to tell. So people get a glimpse of their own stereotypes doing the talking, and they come face to face with the possibility that they themselves contribute to keeping these stereotypes alive – something they most definitely do not want to do as we can see from Ingrid’s reflections on the matter:

“I wish people wouldn’t keep insisting that women speak differently. We should be talking about the work, not the women. My boss is a woman and she is really aggressive. She competes with everyone and takes every opportunity to keep me quiet or even put me down. She’s new, and maybe she’s insecure but it shouldn’t interfere with the project. On conference calls she competes with the others, particularly one of the senior guys – they try to outdo each other all the time – and the goal of the exercise gets diluted in the midst of it.”

Intuitively then, some people believe that the stereotypes describe their own conversational behaviour, and some people don’t.

But what is the research evidence*?

It is unequivocal. Professional women and men use a whole range of different conversational styles influenced by a great many contextual factors, as the case of the young American man in the Brussels cafe confirms. Both women and men employ a rich variety of language features and are well able to use language resources flexibly and with precision.

So no, women are not more indirect than men, men are indirect too; women don’t use tag questions because they are unsure of themselves, they often use them to encourage people to participate, and so do men; men don’t do the lion’s share of the interrupting, and interrupting isn’t all about closing people down, sometimes people interrupt in support, and both women and men do this.

Time and time again the myths about gender and language have been questioned, contested and shown to be just that – myths. The evidence from serious linguistic research from a range of different research perspectives simply does not support the view that men and women speak different languages. But myths are an important source of practical knowledge and we believe them because they seem to be true, and because they are everywhere – particularly in training, coaching and sound-bite science.

Such beliefs influence our behaviour and shape our stereotypes – including our stereotypes of our conversational styles. Challenging and changing these stereotypes isn’t a job for one person.

It isn’t the women who need fixing because they apologise all the time and weaken everything they say by dropping “just” into every sentence; and it isn’t men who need fixing because they take up all the conversational space with their explaining and interrupting – in spite of the often rather funny stories circulating on the basis of these stereotypes. But they are just that – stereotypes. In real, everyday workplace conversations women explain and men say “just”; and women and men do a whole range of other things too.

We can’t really expect to challenge gender stereotypes if our approaches to fixing the problem are unwittingly reinforcing the very stereotypes we want to challenge. We will just end up going round in circles. So let’s not do that.


* For an excellent summary written for an audience of non-linguists, I can recommend Deborah Cameron’s (2007) book, The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages? Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Are you visible enough?

Without a doubt, if you attend meeting after meeting and always end up with the impression that you are neither seen nor heard, then its easy to conclude that that you need to learn to be more forceful, more visible. And if you spend a great deal of your time leading meetings in which some people fail to engage or refuse to speak out, it’s easy to conclude that the fault lies with them. After all, they also believe that the fault lies with them.

Take Lorena, an experienced marketing manager for a global manufacturing company. She reflects:

“I feel that because I do not have seniority, my comments are not welcome. I feel like I lack influence – and I’m not sure if it’s because of my experience or because I’m not able to get my ideas through. I used to be extroverted and outgoing – but I am trying to change that. I want to be different – to speak less – to get my ideas through, but … I never really know when I’m taking too much or not enough!”

Lorena believes that she is the one with the problem.

Interactional difficulties are experienced individually, so we shouldn’t be too surprised if solutions to such problems are aimed at individuals too. And of course there is nothing wrong with working on empowering oneself to make more or better contributions – people need to feel that they have the power to make a change which will allow them to have more influence, be a better manager, take up the power of their role more effectively.

But there is a trap in this sort of thinking. It smooths over the contradictions of how people actually experience power (or the lack of it) in their workplace conversations. It over-simplifies the causes and the solutions, and robs teams of difference – different perspectives, different values and different ways of addressing problems and finding solutions.

As part of the Dynamics of Difference research I have spent a long time reading and re-reading the written reflections of the sixty professional women participants whose struggles to understand their own contradictory relationship with visibility and power, point to the need for a more nuanced understanding of the perennial challenge of getting heard in meetings.

So let’s take a closer look at the contradictions of visibility and power.

First there is good visibility. You see yourself as relatively powerless – perhaps because your English is not so good, or because you are a woman in male dominated firm, or because you are from the European south and not its powerful north – or a whole host of other reasons that mean it seems harder for you to make your mark. You are invisible. In this case invisibility equals powerlessness; visibility brings you power. Joana reflects:

“The environment is highly competitive and the interactions are important for all of the professionals in the meetings. I need to give visibility to the successes and challenges of my teams – and to increase my own profile so senior managers are aware of my achievements. But I sometimes feel that I cannot contribute to the conversation or be taken seriously enough because of the way I speak. I often struggle to be heard.

Then there is bad visibility. You are different (your age, race, gender, culture, sexuality, nationality) and being different makes you stand out from the norm. But you don’t want to stand out because that weakens your power. You have to be seen as one of them in order to make your mark. You are too visible. In this case visibility equals powerlessness; invisibility brings you power. Teresa says:

“It is difficult to be seen as senior as I am. I don’t mind making mistakes, but I don’t like it to look like I don’t have enough knowledge when really, it’s just a language problem. The main question is about expressing myself with enough seniority among peers who are mainly all native speakers. Getting the language wrong means they start treating you differently, like they think you aren’t up to it, or they don’t fully trust you.”

Both perceptions are present in my data, in fact both are present in the same person, and even in the same breath.

Pamela knows she’s young to have reached a relatively high position in her lawn firm. She also knows it’s because her clients are very happy with her work, and on a one-to-one basis she has no problem getting her ideas across and holding her ground. In meetings with senior partners though, she sometimes can’t break through. She explains:

“In meetings, knowing when to speak to generate good impact can be a problem. I am 31 years old, and I might even look a little younger, so sometimes I have the feeling that the older professionals don’t take me as seriously as they should. Recently I was at the negotiating table with a partner from our firm, but the way the counterpart spoke back made me think that he wasn’t taking me seriously. He only wanted to address his remarks to the partner from our firm, and never directly to me. He didn’t even look at me.”

She felt invisible and yet she reflects:

“I want to sound like them – to sound more serious – to be taken more seriously”

What Pamela wants is to blend right in, to become “one of them”, and the way she sees she can do this most effectively is by altering the way she interacts. She wants to be seen and to be invisible.

This is odd, is it not?  Surely we can untangle what’s good and what’s bad. But Pamela’s experience is not unique – many feel this contradiction. They experience good and bad visibility, power and powerlessness, hand in hand, both at once. And because there isn’t a ready way to make sense of such tensions and contradictions, the cocktail of good and bad visibility gets mixed up in conversations and mixed up in your mind. Then, instead of opening the issues up and talking about them with others, we account for our individual experiences and feelings with self-criticism and off the shelf self-help explanations.

But when we focus too hard on personal weaknesses and individual solutions, we overlook the more structural aspects of experience, and in particular, the incredible power of the conversational norm. Our workplace conversations follow predictable and fairly stable patterns which conceal the norms and values within them. These norms can over-ride our surface awareness of fairness and inclusivity precisely because we take conversational patterns so much for granted (it’s how you “do” a brainstorm, or a case review or a board meeting or whatever) and because of this, the exclusionary processes and effects also remain invisible.

So what does this have to do with being visible, powerful and effective at work?

It reminds us that changing practice is a collective effort. This is not to say that we should give up trying to figure out how our own thinking and behaviour is both part of the problem and the solution. Everyone can work on themselves, of course. But that can’t be the end of it – because the thing about conversations is that there is always more than one person involved.

Picture a whirlpool of conversational practices. The norm has a very powerful pull.

So if we really want to make our professional conversations more inclusive, we have to tackle the whirlpool. If we don’t, we will end up talking about the value of difference, but doing it in a way which values sameness.