In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton stated “…please never stop believing that fighting for what is right is worth it … and to all the little girls … never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
If women are to continue to fight for what is right, and girls are to pursue and achieve their own dreams, they must fortify and demonstrate “grit”, defined by Angela Duckworth (in her book Grit) as a special blend of passion and perseverance. Passion and perseverance are tricky characteristics for women and girls to portray given certain societal expectations. Indeed, women’s passion can be perceived as “emotional” and their perseverance can be seen as “uncollaborative”. While these perceptions may be unfair and even sexist, they are our reality just the same. Thus, women must understand and address the gender-specific nuances of passion and perseverance, in order to increase our impact and serve as role models for the next generation of women.
Passionate vs. Emotional
I can recall countless times when a senior executive told me, and other women who were vigorously engaged in a debate, that we were being “too emotional.” And I remember when, during one of those encounters, a woman calmly stated “I am not emotional. I am passionate.”
Are women held to a different standard than men in demonstrating passion? An HBR article written by Kathryn Heath and Jill Flynn stated “Although passion has a legitimate place in business, it can be misinterpreted — especially when women are doing the communicating and male colleagues are on the receiving end.” The authors examined 1,000 feedback reports on female executives and stated “we’ve seen that male colleagues or managers say things like, ‘She was too hyped up’ and ‘She was emotional’, whereas the women themselves say they [were] simply advancing their cause or expressing an opinion, albeit passionately.”
With this subtle (or overt) sexism at work, how can women effectively demonstrate the passion required for grit? The same article provided insightful guidance, the following which resonated with my experience:
Plan your argument in advance: “If you use your passion to make a point, do so deliberately as opposed to in-the-moment.” The authors suggest that women preview their position with those who will be in the meeting “so your passion won’t take others by surprise.” They also advise women to “use language that is passionate but a tone that’s moderate. In other words, remain in control so that people focus on the content of your argument”, more so than the delivery. My own personal approach in these settings is to start the conversation by speaking one decibel below the person with whom I am debating. The louder that person becomes, the more decibels stand between their volume and mine, as I keep the volume of my voice steady throughout the debate. My passionate words do not change, but I believe the contrasts in our volume influences people to truly listen to what I have to say, and perceive me as in control of my emotions. Focusing on the volume of my voice also allows me to concentrate on my word choice, helping me avoid an immediate “emotional” reaction. For example, saying in a normal voice, “The facts do not support that conclusion”, is more well received and credible than yelling “THAT IS TOTALLY FALSE”. Believe me, I have said (OK, yelled) the latter more times than I care to remember, and I have learned the hard way that the “normal volume, exacting words” approach is much more effective.
Combine passion with other debate approaches such as “logic, specificity, creativity, and experience.” The authors advise that an audience “may respond more favorably to a different tactic.” In applying this advice, I think of key words or analogies that will be remembered long after the meeting. For example, when arguing about a strategy, I pointed out that one strategy was a revolution while the other was an evolution of our current strategy. I went on to clarify the difference between the two descriptors and how they related to the strategies being considered. I wanted people to remember “revolution vs. evolution” in order to make an impression about my point of view.
Start your conversation with a strong declaration and a summary of facts that support your points. People are typically more calm in the beginning of a debate, before they are challenged. By starting out with a firm statement of your conviction and the facts that led you to your conclusion, you will demonstrate passion and logic, a strong combination that makes people want to sit up and listen.
Perseverance vs. Lack of collaboration
The second element of grit, perseverance, typically denotes a positive perception. However, its synonym, persistence (a word that Duckworth uses frequently in her book to describe perseverance), is often perceived in a more negative light, as it implies unremitting (and sometimes annoying) steadfast behavior. Thus, strong and unwavering perseverance, or persistence, can be perceived as a sign of being uncollaborative. This hurts women more so than men, given women are held to a higher standard in terms of being collaborative. Indeed, Duke University Professor Martha Reeves, in her book Women in Business, states, “women will be judged more so than men on whether or not they are collaborative and supportive of others’ ideas.” Further she states “women will be expected … to harmonize work relationships and to be ‘good’ with people.”
How can women persevere without upsetting the “harmony” they are expected to establish and maintain? My advice is to practice ingenuity, (i.e., clever inventiveness and resourcefulness) along with perseverance. In others words, don’t keep repeating the same approach for getting people on board; try different approaches, debate different angles of the issue, solicit a variety of opinions with influencers, bring people together and then speak with them individually, and present your ideas in different ways to match how a particular audience can best take in and understand your perspective.
Ingenious perseverance also requires you to listen with intent when people express their concerns about what you are suggesting or doing. Intent listening helps you find the common ground between opposing views, and helps you isolate the point of difference (e.g., “It sounds like we both want to do ‘x’, but we disagree on ‘y’ ”). By doing this, the divide between you and others appears smaller, people feel more understood and less threatened, and thus people are more likely to consider your perspective. Ingenious perseverance is difficult for sure, but it is the best avenue for women to minimize the negative aspects of persistence and exercise the positive aspects of collaboration.
More than ever, women need to exhibit grit in order to “fight for what is right”, and we need to fuel the grit of younger women and girls so that they can “pursue and achieve [their] own dreams.” Given the subtle sexism that is a part of our daily work life, women must also be thoughtful about how we portray the passion and perseverance required for grit. I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with women with undeniable grit, and I have learned from them how to be a more effective leader and change agent. I must now teach my daughter and her generation that they are “valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world”, and that they absolutely have the grit to make their dreams a reality.