Women occupy about 12 percent of the executive offices of America, and most of them got there by being tough, forceful and direct.
But, a corporate coaching program called "Bully Broads" featured in the latest issue of Elle magazine is teaching these tough women to get ahead by being nice.
"The very characteristics that help me get where I was at were now holding me back from executive level positions," said one participant, Deborah. "My passion to do a great job was driving others to be so afraid of me."
Others were so afraid of her, that Deborah's boss sent her to Silicon Valley executive coach Jean Hollands, who founded "Bully Broads," and counts Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Lockheed-Martin among her clients. Deborah wasn't the only one being sent to the corporate trainer for anti-assertiveness training.
"My boss said 'I want you to talk to Jean Hollands, she has this thing it's called Bully Broads'," said another participant, Karen. "And I was like, 'I'm not a bully. I'm not a bully. I'm so nice. I care about people — the people that do their work.'"
The Work Rules
It is that "take no prisoners" attitude that Hollands says she tries to fine tune, with rules like "Don't Judge — Enjoy" and "Down Girl — You Don't Need to Confront at Every Turn." She also advises participants to smile, use softer voices, and self-deprecation or stammering when speaking.
The goal behind all the niceties: boosting productivity. It is difficult to produce if others do not want to work with you, Hollands says. Their bosses are insecure around them, and colleagues will not cooperate. Bully broads get no cooperation from their fellow workers, and end up working solo, and becoming tired and despondent because of it.
Instead Hollands suggests taking a number of steps: talking slowly so other people can listen and respond, giving feedback to others and even walking slowly so people don't feel bowled over. She even tells women they should feel comfortable crying at work, because that is passion for your work coming out.
Using role-play, Hollands tried to get a participant named Melissa to soften her exchanges with her boss.
"Why don't you say to him, as if you're talking to him, 'I'm really hurt about all this. This is really hard on me,'" Hollands said. "Try it."
Melissa shot her a look of stunned disbelief, then, gave the words a try.
"OK. 'Gee I'm really hurt by this'," she said, then interrupted herself, saying, "But you can't be hurt at work."
"Do it," Hollands said.
"OK. 'I'm really hurt by all this. I wish we could talk about it," Melissa said, gaining the group's approval.
Kinder, Gentler Female Execs
It's not easy, but change can happen.
Before Hollands' coaching, Deborah had tough words for someone who took the credit for her work.
"I can't believe you would present that project work as if it was all your own work, and not give credit to myself and all the team members. So I need you to understand I'm really upset and I believe now that I've got to take some kind of action," Deborah said.
The newer, nicer, Deborah would try a different tactic.
"Hey, Ronnie — you have a minute? I want to talk to you about something that upset me and I'm not sure what really happened," Deborah said.
What ever happened to the feminist battle cry — "I am woman, hear me roar"?
Well, when you go into battle, you can't be an army of one, another participant explained.
"I think it's about at a certain point in your career for a woman, sophisticating your behavior," said another participant. "So that you learn to be powerful and you learn to be powerful in a way that's acceptable to people, not in a way that a lot of us in this group has had that nobody wants to work for you, and nobody wants to be on a team with you."
They are businesswomen, ever conscious of the bottom line. So if it gets results, they don't mind being kinder and gentler. And if their bosses send them off against their will, they get the last laugh.
"I got promoted," said one participant, Deborah.