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.