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The Signs Of Silence – How To Recognize And Respond When Being Silenced As A Leader

Written by: Jessica Karl Rice, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Jessica Karl Rice

What do you do when you are silenced in your work? Being silenced can show up as someone being misleading, undermining, or even gaslighting. When we feel silenced in our place of employment, the feeling can be disturbing and lead to worry, anxiety, self-doubt, stress, fear, and anger.

Serious woman in white blazer sitting on chair inside the office

Sometimes, being silenced is nuanced. It can be a series of microaggressions or even indirect implications.


As an executive coach, I work with leaders in big tech and science industries to find their authentic voice and discover ways to amplify their natural leadership qualities, but what do you do when you are being silenced?


Listen to the associated podcast on this topic.


Let’s be honest: some companies and people claim to value your thoughts and opinions, but when you contradict or challenge their decisions, you receive the opposite message. It can appear as a correction, being dismissive, interrupted, undermined, or criticized. As women, this tends to happen more frequently and presents differently than with our male counterparts.


The idea of women rising in the ranks is no longer novel, but there is still a sense of needing to fight for our position that is present. Your location also plays a factor in how women are received. We may not be living in the 80s and watching Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver fight for the top in Working Girl ¹ and singing “Let the River Run,” ² but to a certain extent, we are still facing similar challenges. The number of vacancies at the top still feels limited, women are often pitted against one another to rise ahead, companies are more focused on checking off the DEI box than changing the corporate culture, and women are still being silenced when they are passionate about their ideas. The biggest issue we face now is that all of the things previously done in the open and were more evident before are now more covert and subtle, making being silenced feel all the more confusing and challenging to identify.


In an article published by Harvard Business Review titled “Why Women Stay Out of the Spotlight at Work,” ³ women were interviewed and observed as to why they often chose to avoid increasing their visibility when it came to leadership. They noted that while there were several reasons related to a lack of authentic leadership styles that prompted this, many indicated that it was to mitigate the risk of facing disproportionate backlash due to either being forced to self-promote in ways that were overtly masculine or receiving implicit bias upon exerting the expectation to compete. “Many had personally experienced or witnessed situations where women who acted assertively or authoritatively were penalized.


As a result, many women turned to invisibility to avoid backlash from bosses and colleagues. They were aware of gender bias in the workplace and used intentional invisibility to limit their exposure to it.” – (Harvard Business Review et al.)


Why? Some companies use leadership as a means to gain power and control. They haven’t realized that leadership has changed or taken the time to learn how new thought leadership paradigms are the opposite of the age-old idea of the domineering boss.


Other issues might present as ignorance or naïveté in relation to respecting others opinions, but most assuredly there are egos at stake and that creates the need to silence.


In the article published by Forbes, The Subtle Art Of Undermining Women In The Workplace, by Bianca Barratt, she writes, “Yet if we’re ever going to reach a point where women, men and non-binary people are free to move beyond the negative gender roles expected of them, we all need to take on the responsibility of looking more objectively at our behaviour and how it might be contributing to an imbalance.”


Barratt provides a digestible list of offenses that include:

  • Greeting women with a kiss on the cheek,

  • Expecting female colleagues to take charge of all celebrations

  • Using derogatory language in an ‘ironic’ way

  • Expecting all women to be good at multitasking

  • Cutting women off as they’re talking in meetings

  • Using gendered language to describe work ethic

  • Making jokes about having to be ‘careful’ what you say these days


There are also a few assumptions that have come up during my conversations with women leaders that are discouraging and frustrating. They are the cause for women not wanting to be seen in some cases, as the workload for women increases with the assumption that they are better at specific tasks.

A few noteworthy assumptions to add:

  • Women enjoy creating slide decks

  • Women enjoy making things “pretty”

  • Women are better writers

  • Women are more organized (and enjoy it)

  • Women are interested in personal affairs

  • Women are personal assistants

  • Women do not understand higher-level thinking

  • Women do not know what is best for their career

  • Women can’t say “no”

  • Women aren’t the leader


A three tiered-approach


How can one navigate this authentically while still keeping their job?


First, recognize that culture is not king in some companies, and they aren’t playing by those rules. Don’t expect them to all of a sudden have an epiphany. Instead, seek ways to align your natural leadership with allies who will help you have better ground. There is power in numbers, and when you partner with others who will back up your concerns and bring increased awareness, it’s less likely that you will be singled out.


Second, test the waters through smaller conversations. If large groups trigger certain voices to assert their authority, find ways to have 1:1 or small group discussions that enable your ideas to be heard. You could meet privately with those who tend to act more authoritative in large groups to appear less threatening in smaller settings. You could also meet with other leaders who have influence and authority to help bring your message forward. The more you can position yourself with various members of the team, the more difficult it will be for them not to listen.


Lastly, find ways to beat them at their own game. Consider ways you can elevate your communication style to establish greater authority that is informed, calm, and non-threatening. Reevaluating your communication style can be challenging as you adjust your natural speech to meet another person’s expectations. However, this tactic can prove helpful for understanding the communication styles used by others and mirroring them to fit with your own. This skill is a tactic used in negotiation and sales strategies, so there are times when it will be necessary to pull it out of your toolbox.


Experiencing masked silencing


I was working with a leader who had experienced continual silencing. She had limited resources due to recent layoffs and was finding herself juggling work on individual projects while leading her team. The business came to her requesting a new product solution to be delivered in a short turnaround. After doing some preliminary research on the product, she found some holes in the request and drew up some alternative solutions to meet the needs of the business. When she presented her findings and proposal for an adjusted solution based on her research, she received negative feedback from her boss and was told to deliver what they had asked for specifically. She did as was told, against her findings and internal opinions. Development was put in motion, and the product was built. When it came time to show to the executive team, they had forgotten their initial request and changed their minds on some key areas. They now accused her of not performing the necessary research or understanding the customer. She had little room to negotiate or explain the situation, and the pressure put upon her to get it done as directed with the lack of resources was unrecognized. In the moment, she decided to remain silent while she allowed her mind to cool.


This masked form of being silenced is what I call Snowball Silencing. It happens when you are shut down from multiple angles and pinned in a corner. It created feelings of self-doubt, delusion, and anger. Together, we worked through her options and discussed an approach for maintaining her credibility while moving forward on the new requests. The strategy she implemented included following up with key leaders individually and bringing in external team members to explain portions of the project and determine new solutions for moving forward. This enabled her to establish leadership over the project while developing partnerships to help with presenting the next round of development proposals.


Had she decided to defend her position or decision-making process at the moment, she would have lost further ground. By thinking through the problem, she was able to create alliances with others who could support her new approach and prevent them from solely targeting her in the future.


Finding balance in chaos


Walking the tightrope of leadership when you feel that your voice is not being heard can be frustrating and disheartening. If you find that you are starting to lose your cool and your emotions are impacting your behavior, it can be an excellent time to consider taking a break. Consider your next strategy, align your offense with your defense, and determine your next move. Remember, you do not have to relinquish your power or control. If you are struggling mentally, seek out opportunities to speak to someone who can help you determine your path forward, develop strategies, and determine healthy boundaries. Leverage your emotional intelligence (EQ) and know that you are not only being presented with a challenge but also an opportunity to rise above and grow beyond your present circumstances.


It is never acceptable to silence others. The more we speak out and raise our voices, the more we can bring awareness to the experiences of others and recognize their contributions. Silencing hurts our valued workforce, limits innovation, and new paradigms of thinking that bring us all forward. Companies benefit and excel when more voices are heard, culture is valued, and ALL are respected.


I’ll leave you with a few excerpts from the powerful and uplifting poem by Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.


Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I'll rise.

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.


–Maya Angelou, Still I Rise ⁵


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Jessica Karl Rice Brainz Magazine
 

Jessica Karl Rice, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Jessica Rice is a certified ICF Coach, Author, and host of the Hello You Show. She is focused on helping visionary leaders and entrepreneurs reach extraordinary goals. With over 15 years of corporate experience in Brand, UX, Engineering and Leadership, Jessica brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her coaching clients. Her clients have achieved remarkable results from discovering their golden path to scaling their leadership impact. Jessica provides tailored support and guidance to help breakthrough limitations, increase productivity, and lead with impact and authenticity. Jessica is passionate about helping women to rediscover their voices and be heard. You can reach here at jessica@jessicaricecoaching.com

 

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