Emotional Inequality at Work

A new study conducted by VitalSmarts reveals women's perceived competency drops by 35 percent and their perceived deserved compensation by $15,088 when they are assertive or forceful. A look at whether using a brief, framing statement can reduce social backlash, plus other tips.

Jesse Jackson once confessed, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

We all do it. We make unconscious judgments—even unwelcome ones. You don’t get to vote on it. You may not even know you do it. In fact, if you doubt that you do it, it’s even more likely that you do.

New research techniques developed over the last decade have enabled us to expose the stubborn implicit biases we make about race, gender, disability, class, sexual orientation— and, yes, gender. If you want an exercise in humility, go take one of the dozen-plus tests at implicit.harvard.edu. Unconscious bias isn’t about being a good or bad person. It’s not about being black, white, gay, straight, male, or female. At least for now, these biases are part of the human condition.

Here’s an example. Imagine you see a manager in a meeting working with other managers. You already know this manager has been hired by your organization and soon will become your peer. You watch as your future colleague speaks up in a forceful way that borders on anger: “I’m not on board with the direction this decision is going. . . No, I’m not finished. I won’t back down from this position, and I’m not going to commit my team and resources to this project until we have more conclusive evidence to work with. Period.”

It’s a bold, brash, and emotional statement that doesn’t demonstrate much listening or patience. What do you think of your new colleague?

Observers who hear this interaction think less of their new colleague. There is a social backlash against people who voice this kind of strong disagreement. But it turns out that your judgment is likely to be harsher if the colleague’s name is Patricia than if it is Patrick. Women who disagree in forceful, assertive ways are judged more harshly than men—by both men and women.

We have spent 30 years documenting high-stakes conversations like this and the role they play in every facet of organizational performance and employee engagement. More recently, we’ve become concerned with the unique deterrents women face to expressing strong opinions. Leaders in training and professional development roles, specifically, should take special note of the role unconscious judgments against assertive women play in suppressing the contributions of more than half of their workforce. It is difficult enough to create a culture of candor without implicit biases offering additional disincentives to authentic communication.

The Long and Short Term
Such bias is unfair, wrong, and real. So what is to be done about it?

The truth is, there is no settled science on ultimate solutions. Our colleagues at Facebook are taking bold first steps by drawing the hidden problem into the light. They’ve even made their compelling video discussions available (http://managingbias.fb.com). But beyond making the implicit a bit more explicit, we don’t know what it will take to banish automatic thoughts that even the thinker doesn’t know are influencing her or his judgments.

In the meantime, each day the problem persists, women who show up in powerful ways in crucial conversations will be punished unfairly. Is there anything women can do to minimize these consequences? We decided to find out.

Let us be clear before sharing these strategic tips—it is unfair to ask a woman to do anything different than a man would in order to enjoy equal verbal freedom. We do not suggest these tactics as responsibilities for women, but rather as options for those who see upside in employing them.

Don’t Judge Me
We set out to identify learnable skills women can use that inoculate them against tacit criticisms of colleagues without stifling their speech. We wanted to finds skills that make women more effective when they do “lean in.”

A hint of a solution came from a landmark study by Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll called “Can an Angry Woman Get Ahead?” (Brescoll, V. L., and Uhlmann, E. L. (2008). Can an angry woman get ahead? Status conferral, gender, and expression of emotion in the workplace. Psychological Science, 19(3), 268-275). Brescoll concluded that subjects judged a person who presented an aggressive opinion most negatively when they concluded the speaker was out of control. And, importantly, they were quicker to conclude a woman was out of control than they were with an equally aggressive man.

We asked more than 11,000 subjects to watch videos of a man or woman taking an aggressive position in a meeting (download the study, “Emotional Inequality: Solutions for women in the workplace,” at vitalsmarts.com/GenderBiasEbook). In the control condition, they would see the actor make the statement you read earlier: “I’m not on board with the direction this decision is going. . . No, I’m not finished. I won’t back down from this position, and I’m not going to commit my team and resources to this project until we have more conclusive evidence to work with. Period.” Subjects were instructed to imagine the person they were watching was joining the organization as their peer.

Next, we asked them to decide how much respect, autonomy, and power the individual deserved. They also were asked how much salary the person deserved.

As we predicted, the woman suffered more than the man for her strong emotion. Viewers docked her pay twice as much as they did for the man!

In the experimental condition, we used the same video clips but added five seconds on the front end. Both the man and the woman prefaced their emotional statement with one of these two frames:

  1. Behavior Frame: The actors described what they were about to say before saying it—“I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible.” The intent of this frame was to make the actors appear in control and deliberate.
  2. Value Frame: The actors described their motivation in value- laden terms before making their forceful statement—“I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.” The intent of this frame was to show the thought process for the actors. It gave an explanation for their disapproval.

The behavior frame reduced negative judgments by about 10 percent. The value frame reduced judgments almost twice as much—close to 20 percent. The most effective by far, however, was a controversial one:

  1. Inoculation Frame: The female actor suggested it could be risky for a woman to speak up the way she was about to— “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.” The intent of this frame was to prime the observers to the possibility that they would be biased against her. We were interested in whether this would affect their judgments in a positive or negative way.

This frame reduced judgments by 27 percent—substantially more than the other two. But should women use it?

Interestingly, when we asked women this question directly, there was a strong negative reaction to the Inoculation Frame (but a consistently positive one to the other two frames). However, when we prefaced the question by asking, “How would you feel if you saw another woman use this frame?” followed by the question: “Would you use it yourself or recommend it to others?” they responded far more positively.

We were interested in this conditionally sensitive response and are interested in additional research to discern both the utility and desirability of this tactic. Importantly, the frames reduced the negative judgments against both men and women—a point that often is lost in consideration of the extra judgments made against women. So both can benefit from the use of the frames.

What Could Be Better?
These framing statements show potential as partial solutions to social backlash in general—and the increased backlash that reflects gender bias. However, even the most successful frame produced only a 27 percent reduction in social backlash. What can be done to mitigate the other 73 percent?

Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske points out that the most critical assessments humans make of one another are warmth and competence. Warmth is our best guess about whether others intend us good or ill—it’s our assessment of their motives. Competence is our estimate of their ability to make good on their intentions. Thus, if we see them as evil but incompetent, we can safely ignore them. If they are selfish and capable—we watch them closely.

Applying Fiske’s model, one might assume that the additional 73 percent reduction in credibility and trust requires additional reassurance that we are not just competent (in control), but that we’re also benign (intend no harm). Perhaps frames that assure others of our positive intentions or emphasize a desire for a mutually beneficial outcome would erase even more of the backlash while still allowing the speaker to express his or her strong feelings on the topic.

Given the importance of creating workplaces where everyone’s ideas get due consideration, managers must, like Facebook and others, continue the search for ultimate solutions to unconscious bias. In the meantime, tactics such as framing may provide tools for interrupting or mitigating the negative effects of implicit biases for those of us who have things to say right now. ??t

Joseph Grenny is co-chairman and co-founder of VitalSmarts. He is a keynote speaker and business strategy expert. For the last 25 years, Grenny has designed and implemented major corporate change initiatives. He is coauthor of New York Times bestsellers “Change Anything,” “Crucial Conversations,” “Crucial Accountability,” and “Influencer.” Grenny cofounded Unitus, a nonprofit organization that helps third-world poor achieve economic self-reliance.

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. As vice president of Research at VitalSmarts, Maxfield leads an ongoing series of research projects uncovering the negative impact of cultures of silence in organizations around the world. His research has been published widely, including in the MIT Sloan Management Review.