Feedback is a gift, here’s how to give it with grace

For many of us, the only thing worse than receiving critical feedback is giving it. It doesn’t feel good to make someone else feel bad – and even worse? The Pandora’s Box of potential responses. Most of us have delivered feedback poorly – or given it well only to have a negative situation escalate. When tensions are high, the prospect of making a situation worse can be enough to convince smart people to stay silent. 

Silent, maybe, but not subtle. Our body language and behaviour always deliver feedback, even when our tongues are tied (or wagging in the wrong directions). In our attempts to avoid ‘confrontation’, women often turn to far more toxic tools like passive aggression or talking about people instead of to them. Guilty? Join the club. But the next time you catch yourself moaning about someone, why not try feedback instead?

Feedback is a gift that helps people succeed 

Fear of feedback means we fail to see it for what it really is: a powerful leadership tool. At Hatch, we used it to create a culture of radical collaboration. One of the reasons Powrsuit even exists is because of a piece of feedback between us; the internal processor told the external processor (we’ll let you guess who’s who 😉) she needed more time to digest information. Left unaddressed, these different styles would have led to miscommunications and resentment. Instead? The feedback established a foundation of mutual respect and trust lasting two startups and half a decade. 

A dish best served warm

Embedding feedback into a workplace culture takes time and is not always a smooth road. At Hatch, we hired a lot of people quickly, and many of them had never received quality feedback about their work before. They walked into an environment that was so comfortable with feedback it was given liberally, regularly, and without much of the structure, we now recommend. You can guess how well that went 🫣.

Initially, we were met with every adverse reaction you can imagine. It felt awful. But we took that feedback on board and iterated our approach. Over time, our team started actively seeking input from us and one another; they didn’t just endure it; they enjoyed it. And that’s the trick with feedback. It’s a trust-building exercise that can be built through trial and error and adopting tiny habits. The more (clear, kind) feedback we give and adapt to the feedback we receive, the more it becomes a beloved part of workplace culture. 

Clear is kind: how to give critical feedback without fear

We shouldn’t be afraid of feedback, but we should respect the importance of doing it right. All feedback should be specific, regular and timely. The positive stuff should be doled out like candy in public – people are amazing, and their talent should be celebrated. Critical feedback, however? It’s always a private conversation. Found a quiet spot? Here are five tips for delivering it in a way that builds bridges instead of burning them. 

1. Swap feelings for facts

The first rule of feedback is to assume the best intentions or, better yet, avoid assumptions altogether. Apply the disconnect principle; you know there’s a disconnect between what you expected and what happened – but that’s all you know. You don’t understand why someone delivered a substandard report, failed to send an email, or sat silently in a meeting. Any explanation at this stage is a story you’re telling yourself – one that will likely cause you to put feelings before facts.

2. Listen first

Once you’ve psyched yourself up to deliver feedback, it’s all too easy to dive straight into it. That is the wrong thing to do (yes, we learned this one the hard way!). People react to a negative interaction with their boss six times more strongly than a positive one. Most people are also aware when something isn’t going well. You can avoid much pain by simply asking about the situation first. Be curious, listen to understand, and prepare to be surprised by what you learn.

3. Ask for permission

If you agree with their perspective, you can avoid giving feedback altogether. Feel free to clarify anything or end the conversation there. If you disagree? Ask permission to share your perspective by saying something like, ‘I want you to succeed, so I’d like to give you some feedback. Is that ok?’. Instead of feeling blindsided, the other person can gather themselves and opt-in. 

4. Describe behaviours, not personalities

Remember the internal and external processor example above? That feedback could have been given entirely differently – e.g.’ you’re too dominant’ VS ‘I need a bit more time to digest’. Spot the difference? One assumes a personality problem, and the other focuses on a behaviour that isn’t working. No one should be expected to change who they are, but most of us are happy to adapt if given clear examples of what’s not working and how it impacts others: “When you interrupted me while I was explaining my point, it felt like my opinion wasn’t valued”, and “When you arrived late to the call, it meant we couldn’t complete the agenda”. No one loves hearing it, but critical feedback is far easier to swallow when it’s delivered tactfully.

5. Share the load

The purpose of feedback is to help someone or something improve, and it’s just the first step. When you give feedback, you’re volunteering for a spot on the solution committee, and you need to take that role seriously. The immediate next step is to check if the other person agrees with you by asking questions like “does that feel like a fair representation?”. Remember, this is a joint problem-solving exercise, so once you’re on the same page, agree on the next steps. These could be anything from taking a few days to reflect to agreeing to solutions. Regardless of the plan, it’s your responsibility to check in again and talk about how things are going. Hopefully, the next conversation will be pure positivity.

30 second action:

Give positive feedback! When you spot someone doing something you appreciate today, tell them in the moment. Timely, specific feedback can be actioned in under 30 seconds and should be practised regularly.

How to be your own hype girl: The art of self-promotion

Do you suffer from FOIY (Fear Of Introducing Yourself)? Ok, the acronym isn’t a thing, but the fear really is. We’ve all been there, that moment when someone asks, “so, what do you do?”. Cue: a mind as blank as the faces that turn to stare at you.

Before your brain starts dishing out excuses for your inability to articulate your value: No, it’s not bragging. No, your work alone won’t prove your worth. Yes, you do have something important to say. Yes, people will think you’re more interesting if you (succinctly) tell them why they should.

Thanks to ‘likeability bias’, women are less likely to promote themselves. We expect men to be assertive; it feels natural when they partake in self-promotion – but when we try it on for size? It doesn’t quite fit. We are socialised to be kind, amiable, and pleasant. Those of us who stray too far from these delightful adjectives are labelled with even better ones like ‘passionate’, ‘intense’, ‘loud’, or ‘aggressive’. *wince*

In a classic catch-22, our lack of self-promotion is also responsible for the perception that we are less ambitious and decisive than our male counterparts. When we don’t articulate our value, we lose out on promotions, raises, and investor backing. Less than 2% of venture capital funding went to all-female founding teams in 2021. Yep, more bias.  

Your work may be excellent, but it’ll never be excellent enough to speak for itself

Systemic bias feels like a big topic to tackle, but hey, why not? Women have successfully changed hearts and minds regarding marathons, elections and credit cards; compared to that list, likeability seems an easy win. Just like the leaders before us, we have the opportunity to rewrite the self-promotion playbook and make it work for us. Unlike many of them, we can do without fearing anything but failure. So, put on your powrsuit because it’s time to sell like a girl:

LinkedIn: yes, we still hang there

LinkedIn can be a toxic mess of self-aggrandising and #BoastPosts. However, ‘quirks’ aside, it’s is a great place to build a profile (and following) by sharing relevant news or a recent experience – personal or professional. Put simply: it’s a must for personal brand management.

Like most platforms, LinkedIn is just a blank canvas – people make it what it is. Your future community are scrolling through their feeds, looking for inspiration and information. These people can help you get where you want to go, so tell them what you’ve done! Authentically share your successes and stories. Be visible, be genuine, be you. Let’s add some Big Female Energy to LinkedIn.

Powrsuiters showing us the way are Anna Parker, Candyce Costa and Samantha Gadd.

Rehearse your elevator pitch

People are busy; they want to understand who you are (and why they should care) in under 60 seconds. An elevator pitch captures what makes you uniquely you – and hints at what you can offer. 

Don’t have a pitch yet? It’s key to building networks (we know you’re networking now!). Think of it as a ‘short and sweet’ description of who you are, what you do, and what you’re working on. Once you have yours down, you can roll out a variation of it in any situation (cue: nodding heads and smiles). Kristen is the PowrPitchTM  master, so we’ve broken down her five components to provide a template for yours:

  1. Intro: Hi, I’m [your name here].
  2. One liner: I’m a [journalist, connector, problem solver, leader].
  3. Superpower: I get out of bed to [grow startups, simplify complex challenges].
  4. Evidence: Recently, I have [delivered an incredible project, solved a problem, or achieved a thing].
  5. Ask (optional): Right now, I’m looking to [find a new job, launch a new business, learn a new skill, meet new people].

Put it together and keep it short, sweet and conversational. You have our permission to switch up words and make it your own, but keep from going over 60 seconds. Struggling? Nail your superpower by asking friends and colleagues what they rely on you for. Make sure you also keep a running list of 2-3 success stories you’re proud of, polish them all and switch up your evidence depending on the situation.

You can (and should) be proud and excited; people are genuinely interested in hearing about the cool things you’ve done. And practice makes perfect, so test your pitch on friends, family, and the people in the elevator beside you – it’ll take a few tries to get it down. With that in mind, Kristen and Nat have volunteered to share theirs:


Hi, I’m Kristen –  a leader in the startup space. Solving problems at scale is an incredible place to be. I was a co-founder at the investment platform Hatch, and we’re immensely proud of its impact on Kiwi wealth building. After we exited to FNZ, I caught the bug to start something new with my co-founder Nat. We’ve just launched Powrsuit, a platform for women to amplify their impact as leaders. We’re currently learning about where we can have the biggest impact.

Hey, I’m Nat – a serial founder with a mixed bag of successes. Most recently, I co-founded Hatch to change the wealth stories of New Zealanders. An epic four years later, Hatch was acquired by FNZ, and it was time for the next challenge. When we came up for air, the lack of progress in workplace gender equity was glaringly obvious, so Kristen, my co-founder and I started Powrsuit to solve the problem at scale. Powrsuit is a platform for women to amplify their impact as leaders. Right now, we’re working on our first product.

30 second action:

Write a list of personal and professional accomplishments over the past 12 months. This will help form your elevator pitch (and remind yourself how fabulous you are!). Mega bonus points: Deliver a practice elevator pitch to a friend or record/write it and send it to us (go on, do it, we shared ours!).

Quotas work. Let’s scrap them.

Last week, Nat was at the UX NZ conference – a two-day event jam packed with ideas, inspiration, and something that’s now become very normal. Being in a hall full of people is nowhere near normal these days, so what felt strangely ordinary? The incredible diversity of speakers. 

Those who’ve been around the block a time or two will remember the good old days when the word ‘conference’ was synonymous with manels and single-sex speaker lists. Change didn’t happen by chance. Many of us wrote to the organisers of different conferences asking where the women were, others curated contact lists for those who found it ‘too hard to find female experts’, and yes, some publicly named and shamed. As a result, many conferences introduced quotas. 

Quotas work. 

It’s been proven time and time again. From Fire Departments to Parliaments, quotas have increased the representation of everyone apart from white men. Increased representation has, in turn, led to better retention, productivity and profits. It’s a no-brainer, and, like most habits, once established, quotas become unconscious. Diversity becomes the norm.

But, we should scrap them.

Humans suffer from loss aversion, which has made quotas extremely unpopular with one dominant group. It’s hard to have things taken off you, and removing half the familiar seats at the table is no small thing. The loss felt by many men has led to a crisis that some of us, as beneficiaries of colonialism, might also suffer if we were forced to give up advantages we lucked into. 

As empathetic leaders, it’s not good enough to laugh off the misfortunes of the pale and male. And frankly, we’re tired of maintaining a straight face while explaining that the over-representation of one group at the top disproves the ‘best person for the job’ argument. So let’s get rid of quotas. Let’s stop putting the burden on minorities to justify their rise up the ranks. 

The pitch for a quota-free world

The problem with quotas is they’re a cop-out. They shriek of charity – of creating space for representation just because. At a time when women leaders are quitting in their highest numbers ever because they feel unrecognised, organisations looking for healthy talent pipelines need to act. So let’s flip the script and ask, ‘what do organisations gain through diverse leadership?’ An incredibly valuable variety of skills, experience and knowledge, that’s what.

Instead of mandating, say, a 30% quota, why not instead identify and seek out the unique qualities that women bring? Yes, nature and nurture do have an impact on the skills, opportunities and experiences of different groups – that’s why we call it equity, not equality. Off the top of our heads, we can think of a few vital characteristics predominantly found in women, yet we rarely see them recognised in job descriptions or performance reviews:

  1. PerspectiveWomen control 85% of household spending, so they’re probably responsible for the decision to buy most products and services. Having members of a business’s target market on the leadership team gives them a head start in understanding their behaviour (and avoiding embarrassing faux pas).
  2. Empathy and connection: While studies show that gender may not impact overall emotional intelligence, it does affect the skills that make it up. Men outperform women in assertiveness and confidence, and women beat men in empathy and interpersonal relationships. Want an engaged workforce? Seek out these traits when filling leadership positions.
  3. Culture: Men are more likely to make ‘visible’ workplace contributions, like attending optional meetings, while women engage in ‘invisible’ and time-consuming activities like mentoring,  organising social events and DEI initiatives. Umm, how are these activities invisible? They’re the key to a strong culture, especially in a hybrid world. They need to be recognised as the vital contributions they are.

Yes, we’re being slightly tongue-in-cheek about quotas. Again, for those in the back seats, they work. But quotas aren’t a checkbox exercise; they are a tool for improving organisational performance. Top talent should be recognised, not tokenised.

Let’s use smart tools to remove bias from job ads, review the leadership traits that are advertised for, and seek strong collaborators and communicators. It’s time to redefine connecting as a skill, not a social club task.

Rather than force women to justify their right to the seat they’re given at the table, let’s challenge ourselves as leaders to do the work of defining why we deserve to be there.

30 second action:

Take note of the ‘invisible tasks’ you do to keep your workplace culture humming – mentoring, celebrations and social activities, cards and gifts, snacks, conflict resolution, playing therapist, and diversity education. At your next 1 on 1, include them in your list of valuable contributions.

It’s time to make home life work for you

In the middle ages, unmarried women had a harder time finding work. They were relegated to low-value jobs like spinning wool – and that, Powrsuiters, is why the term ‘spinster’ exists today. 

Modern women have very different prospects than their medieval sisters. These days, men are the main benefactors of marriage – even if many are oblivious to the health and happiness they gain. Their wives? They’re statistically worse off – even if society refuses to believe it. Those sympathetic assurances that your single friends will ‘find the right man one day’? They’re being directed at the happiest group of all. Our favourite RomCom could have been called She’s Just Not That Into You.

Navigating the complex world of household chores is hard, and not all of us are lucky enough to be single or in a relationship with another woman. 😉 Many Powrsuiters find themselves with a partner who ignored the warnings to stay away from career women and married anyway (#HopesAndPrayersForHusbands).

If you’re a man, you should probably get married; if you’re a woman, don’t bother.”
Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science.

It’s time to make home life work for you

When Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, resigned, many assumed she walked away to spend more time with her 4-year-old child. We’re still waiting to hear the same rationale applied to a male politician who renounces their position. Neve is a gorgeous wee girl, but the double standards faced by working women and men are anything but. 

Many Powrsuiters have experienced the challenges of juggling the personal and professional firsthand. Last week, we spoke to an executive coach who works with a select few high-performing executives. While you’d assume the biggest challenges facing this group would be their immense workplace responsibilities, her recent sessions with a top-tier director have instead focused on negotiating household chores with her husband. 

Another conversation last week reinforced what we already know; household demands negatively impact women’s careers. In the middle of a (second) glass of wine at a lovely Auckland, NZ bar, an ambitious Powrsuiter announced that once women had children, it was unrealistic to hope their careers would stay centre stage. 

So this week? We’re taking action.

Maybe women can’t have it all. Perhaps we don’t even want to. But what we can hope for is a better work/life balance. So join us to defy the stats, and create a home life that re-distributes the workload, so that we can reach our career goals, whatever they may be.

Behind every great married woman is a partner who shares the load

No one (apart from Nat) enjoys cleaning. No one (including Nat) wants to do the dishes. But these chores, alongside many others, still need to be done. However, how they are done is totally up for grabs. We’ve picked the brains of experts and professional women and pulled together three approaches to fairly divide the mental load to free up time for the things that matter (pssst. That’s you).

Pay to make them go away

During Anne Elder Knight’s Growing Greatness programme, she asks participants to list all the chores they have on their plates. Then, she asks them to identify the ones they can pay other people to do. Yes, we understand there’s a level of privilege in the ability to outsource your chores – but if you do have spare cash, outsourcing could be your best investment. If money is tight, a short-term arrangement can be enough to buy some sanity – consider paying for a helping hand during stressful seasons.

Divide out the doing

If we had a dollar for every time we heard that women are naturally better at multitasking, we’d be on a flight to Hawaii. Incidentally, women are not better than men at seeing mess either. What we are good at, however, is taking on the role of project manager and doer at home. But we don’t need to. Are you in a relationship with someone who is pathologically unable to remember school trips, appointments, gifts, or the shopping list? Then it’s time to stop trying to make them. Instead, split household roles into two: you can embrace the role of project manager and make sure the house runs like clockwork – but leave all the doing to your partner. Yes, it’s time to walk away from the dishes, washing machine and vacuum.

Own the task

Instead of breaking chores down by role, why not break them down by task? Grab your partner and a glass of something yummy, and create a complete list of everything required to keep your household functioning (or take a shortcut and buy this great game). Divide the tasks fairly between you and agree on the minimum standard you expect for each – i.e. do you really have to iron your pillowcases? Your tasks become your (or your partner’s) responsibility to complete from planning to execution – yep, the whole shebang. Remember to schedule regular check-ins to review and reshuffle work as required.

30 second action:

Invite your partner (or yourself) on a planning date. Change starts with understanding the status quo, so use this date to get clear on who’s currently doing what. Bonus points if you challenge yourself to determine whether it’s a fair division.

Are you managing or leading?

Turns out management really is the problem

When managers account for roughly one in every ten employees, it might come as no surprise that they place an outsized burden on an organisation’s costs and complexity. As a result, organisational structures are constantly being reworked to address demands for efficiency

While many think the titles are interchangeable, managers and leaders actually play very different (and very important) roles – and very few people are good at both. Once you understand the difference, you’ll be able to recognise the two hats and know the right one to put on in every situation.

Management is a role, but leadership is a state of being

Leadership has nothing to do with job titles. 

Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and Nelson Mandella are just some of the great leaders of the last century. The commonalities of this varied group perfectly define the label; they can inspire people to buy into a shared vision and give them the confidence to achieve it. 

On top of empathy, charisma and a powerful sense of purpose, these household names have one other vital trait in common; they weren’t promoted to a formal leadership position. Their influence didn’t come from sitting at the top of a hierarchy; it resulted from an incredible ability to inspire change.

Leaders use influence, managers require power – and a manager’s power is bestowed on them by their job title. Within an organisational hierarchy, managers are responsible for controlling how work gets done. They are generally accountable for delivering outputs, which can lead to micromanagement. And while this may have worked in a production line, it can backfire in modern workplaces.

Managers execute a vision, leaders create it

As you rise through the ranks, the importance of exhibiting leadership traits increases accordingly. At an executive level, leaders are expected to see the big picture; understand the business as a whole system, and see how the moving parts interact. They deal in nuance and uncertainty and are adept at juggling competing priorities. Great leaders become symbolic figures; without relying on individual relationships, they can bring people together and engage, empower, and motivate them to achieve their vision. 

Where leaders are artists, managers are technicians. Their role has a narrow focus; to execute the vision. A good manager can understand their team’s tasks and ensure they get done; they are organised, detail-focused, and tactical. They rely heavily on their ability to closely oversee the flow of work, which has become more difficult in a remote/hybrid world. 

Because a manager’s primary focus is on the outputs (not the people performing them), they can make poor leaders. A study of 10,000 leaders within Google found that technical ability came last on the top 8 traits employees identified in an effective leader. We see the irony as organisations tend to promote technically sound experts to leadership positions.

How to show leadership at any level 

While the title of ‘manager’ is only ever assigned, leadership can be exhibited in any situation. We see examples of it everywhere, from the friend who organises a book club to students who speak out against gun violence. Within an organisation, ‘leaders’ are found at more than just senior levels. They’re easy to spot; they’re usually the people others look to for advice and guidance.

The transition can be extremely challenging for those thrust into a formal leadership role (congratulations!). The skills that got you into the position aren’t the ones to make you any good at it. Adding to this seismic shift is a challenge unique to high achievers; they are used to being good at what they do. 

Becoming a good leader at any level can mean putting the skills you’ve honed for years aside and learning an entirely new set almost from scratch. So, regardless of whether you’ve landed a leadership role or are starting in an entry-level position, it’s time to get practising:

Look across, not within
Managers are specialists, but leaders are generalists. To become a good leader, you must move outside your functional comfort zones and look outwards to the bigger picture. Whatever you’re working on, take the time to understand its broader impacts and collaborate with people from other business areas. Especially if it’s an area you need to gain more knowledge of. When making a strategic decision, learn how it relates to the broader competitive and economic environment.

Navigate competing demands
Learn how to make decisions for the good of the whole organisation, not just your area. Departments often compete for budget and people, but leaders must make trade-offs. Next time you’re working on a project, consider the desired outcomes and consider how that might impact your behaviour.

Build empathy over logic
Leaders empower people to achieve results rather than focusing on the outputs they need to deliver. Are you able to succinctly communicate the strategy you’re working towards? Can you align it with the values of the people you work alongside? Have you asked for critical feedback recently?

30 second action:

The next time you’re in a group situation (or watching a reality TV show!), identify the most influential person. No, they aren’t always the loudest. Who does the rest of the group look to for decision-making or to give advice and recommendations? Title aside, they are the leader.



3 career habits to break (and 1 to make) in 2023

We’re 25 days into 2023, which means most of us have done away with our New Year’s resolutions. We thought technology would deliver flying cars by now, but instead, we have apps that can pinpoint the exact day we quit trying to become better people. Most studies on New Year resolutions indicate that the majority of them fail, so we understand the urge to give up while you’re ahead behind and live a heathen life. 😉

In an unscientific Instagram/LinkedIn poll last week (#LikeAndFollow), we did discover that three-quarters of Powrsuiters are looking for positive change – specifically at work. Congrats to the almost 50% of employers who’ve delivered a clear path of progression (the other half might need to subscribe to Powrsuit).

Many of us have ingrained habits that impact our ability to achieve our work goals. We’ve rounded up three that are career-limiting and one that can set you up for success. While motivation is still high and we are still officially in ‘fresh start effect’ season, let’s get down to business.

1. Stop saying sorry 

Two women walk into a bar. They both apologise so much that the bar closes before they finish. Bad jokes aside, start paying attention, and you’ll notice how much time women spend apologising. Amy Schumer’s ‘Sorry’ skit may hit a little too close to home.

A man and a woman bump into each other. She apologises, and he reassures her it’s ok. Studies support what many of us recognise; women apologise far more than men – but the reason might surprise you. Research from the University of Waterloo found that men and women apologise the same amount when they believe they should. Putting aside the trope of men not being able to recognise when they’re at fault, this highlights a very real issue with women and their personal threshold for ‘wrongdoing’. 

A good apology is the outcome of genuine remorse and self-reflection and shouldn’t be an automatic response. When women overuse the word unnecessarily, it loses meaning and is, quite frankly, annoying. 

While it may feel like an innocuous compulsion, over-apologising can highlight a lack of professional maturity. Every ‘sorry’ takes the spotlight off the topic and shines it on an individual’s needs. As you move up the career ladder and are expected to take on more responsibility with less support, constant requests for reassurance wear thin. It may even reduce leadership confidence in your ability to step up – so when the urge arises, bite your tongue

Action:

Keep track of how many times a day you say sorry. Keep a count in a physical or digital notepad, and let us know your #SorryCount.

2. Ditch the body obsession

Steve Jobs wore black skivvies every day for a reason: to reduce the mental fatigue that comes from decision-making. Many high-profile leaders have adopted the same habit to free up the brain space for the much-more-important work they have on their plates. Yet, many women still devote much of their brain space to fixating on their bodies.

The latest beauty craze, Buccal fat removal, is the latest in a long line of fads that encourage women to modify themselves to conform to the newest standard. A conspiracy theorist may think the constant pressure to switch up how you look was designed to overwhelm women, so they had less time to take on the world. A regular person would be forgiven for thinking the same.

You, however, can rebel. Be fit, eat healthily, and head to the gym, salon or botox clinic whenever you like – it’s good to feel good. But quit the negative self-talk that’s doing nothing but taking up valuable brain space. 

It’s 2023, and your value doesn’t come from your waist/hips/thighs. As leaders, we must add ‘positive role model’ to our job descriptions – younger people look up to us, and the normalisation of self-hatred is not the future we aspire to create.

Action:

Get down with Love, Sex and Goopstrip naked in front of the mirror and look at your body. Recognise the flaws, and find the bits you do like. Get comfortable in your own skin.

3. Neutralise the #PassAgg 

Confrontation is scary; feedback is scarier. Avoiding both in favour of snarky comments, gossiping, backhanded compliments or subtle digs – well, that makes us the toxic ones.  

While there are difficult personalities and dynamics in every workplace, most sources of conflict are simply miscommunications. We often overestimate how much others know about our feelings and can unjustifiably resent the message. Rather than addressing issues head-on, women have been socialised to adopt passive aggressive behaviour, expressing hostility ambiguously and indirectly

Passive aggressive behaviour may deliver short-term validation, but long-term? It negatively impacts our reputations, and we miss out on learning critical leadership skills. 

As we progress up the career ladder, we must neutralise this toxic trait to develop relationships, manage conflict and lean into clear, kind and honest feedback. The ability to constructively assert an opinion has an additional benefit; it lets colleagues know that we do, in fact, have one. 

Action:

The first step to breaking the #PassAgg habit is getting comfortable with the fact that it’s ok to disagree with people at work.

One habit to make in 2023: boundaries

Putting your own oxygen mask on first, doing less better, self-care… Boundaries are the hedge that protects your ability to get important sh*t done. The 2022 phenomenon of ‘quiet quitting’ could be more accurately described as ‘acting your wage’, establishing boundaries, and refusing to go above and beyond. Burnout is real, and learning to say ‘no’ can be your best defence

Want to supercharge this habit while minimising pushback? Boundaries, like affirmations, are best spoken aloud. Initiate meaningful conversations about why you won’t accept a 7:30 pm Zoom call or why you switch off on the weekend. Go on, practise clear, kind and honest communication (#NoMorePassAgg!).

We want you to protect yourself so you can smash out some important stuff in 2023, so here’s a simple guide to setting and protecting boundaries: 

Identify your personal values: Use your values to identify your non-negotiables and the boundaries you want to set as a result. 

Plan and communicate them: ‘No’ might be a complete sentence, but it doesn’t make your boundaries more achievable. If dinner with the family is a priority, team planning sessions will help ensure you aren’t landed with end-of-day tasks (and no one is left picking up the slack when you leave). Remember, the more precisely you communicate your boundaries, the more likely they’ll be respected. Rather than ‘I don’t want to work late’, say ‘I need to leave by 6 pm’. 

Protect them: Be consistent. People may try to undermine your boundaries, and letting them slide will confuse matters. If the meeting runs over, your deep work is interrupted, or you’re asked to take on too much work, politely restate your agreed boundary.

Action:

The next time you turn down an invite, give the actual reason, not an excuse. You might get pushback from someone trying to violate your boundary (not your problem!), but you’re more likely to grow trust and respect.

Got a seat at the meeting table? Raise your voice

In the 1960s, executives spent less than 10 hours a week in meetings, leaving plenty of time in the workday for 3-martini lunches 🍸. Fifty years on, and in a classic bad news/good news scenario, long lunches have become as rare as housewives shooting birds

Women may now have a seat at the table, but it’s not always a comfortable one. Modern meeting culture was established half a century ago when women were still fighting for their place on the lowest rungs of the career ladder. In the years since, despite incredible technological and social advances, the biggest change made to meetings seems to be the amount of time we spend in them

While forward-thinking companies pave the way for a future free from back-to-backs, women face a present challenge. In ‘Women at Work’, a 2014 Harvard Business Review study, over half of the women surveyed reported being less effective in meetings than in other work situations. According to research by Catalyst, hybrid work has amplified the problem of women’s struggle to assert themselves. They found that 45% of women leaders said it’s challenging to speak up in virtual meetings, and 20% said they felt ignored or overlooked by workmates during video calls. 

While everyone agrees there is a gender problem, they disagree on the cause. Men interviewed for ‘Women at Work’ put the issue down to women not speaking loudly enough, not finding opportunities to break into the conversation, defensiveness, and apologising too readily. While these critiques can be easily explained by women’s attempts to avoid backlash by navigating expectations of how they should act, other insights can be actioned. 

And act we should. While it’s easy to get rattled when you feel drowned out, we can’t afford to sit back and wait for the world to wake up to the value of our input. We can and should use well-known strategies and techniques to establish our leadership presence at the table. Over the next few weeks, we’ll all be spending a lot of time at another, more food-laden table, so this could be the best time to get practising: 

Project confidence 

Our words have far less impact than our body language. If you’ve watched history’s greatest speech, read the transcript for a stark display of how words alone aren’t nearly as powerful as Martin Luther King’s masterful delivery. 

You have more control than you might think over the image you present to the world, and people respond to the confidence and authority you project. Those who lack confidence tend to shrink – so in meetings, do the opposite. Lean over the table or back in your chair with your shoulders relaxed. Place your arms on the table slightly away from your body and avoid fidgeting nervously with a pen (or nails and cuticles like Kristen and Nat). 

If you’re unsure how to authentically modify your body language, there’s a simple way to figure it out. Next time you’re in your element – hanging with close friends or family – take note of how your body moves. How you walk, sit, gesticulate, maintain eye contact, tone of voice, and show active listening. That’s the presence you bring to your next meeting.

Don’t be too humble

There’s a moment in most meetings where everyone gets a chance to contribute; during the introductions. While it can feel uncomfortable, this is your opportunity to make it clear that you belong. Women tend to undersell themselves, so don’t be fooled by the casual nature of a meeting intro. Practise yours because you have 10 seconds to assert your credibility and establish what you want from the meeting. 

You can make subtle changes to convey confidence during meetings, even if there are no upfront intros. Be more direct by cutting the “maybes” and “what ifs” and swap sentence starters like “How about…” with “I strongly suggest…”. 

Master the pre and post-meeting

While it’s tempting to see meetings as an interruption to your real work, it’s potentially more valuable to reframe them as your real work. Rather than racing in and out, act more like men and build in time at either end to get a good seat, chat with colleagues and build allies. Force yourself to have a buffer by updating your calendar settings in Microsoft or Google to block out 15 minutes on either side of every invite.

Meetings before meetings can also be where real value can be created. Before you go, you should have a good idea of what a successful outcome is (a decision?) and the specific value you can add. Informal conversations allow you to test ideas and garner support, making it easier to take an active part in the conversation once the meeting kicks off. 

Pre-meetings can be as simple as a shoulder tap followed by a question or two, or a quick email to share relevant information. Again, your calendar is your friend – lock in prep time so you prioritise it.

Know the facts

Building a well-formed argument is a powerful communication technique for a leader. You’ll project confidence if you do your homework and go prepared. Counterintuitively, preparing to ‘speak spontaneously’ is important. Write down some things you want to discuss. 

Plan to be rattled

Manterrupting is a thing, and it will happen to you. In fact, during fast-paced meetings, you may be challenged or interrupted, but that doesn’t mean your voice isn’t important – it could come down to different communication styles. If interruptions throw you, you should prepare for them. Here are some one-liners you can jot in your notebook ready to roll out in the moment: 

  • “I haven’t finished my thought and can’t wait to hear what you think about it.”
  • “I’m curious about your response; I’ll finish my point, and then I would love to hear your thoughts.”
  • Feeling confrontational? Kamala Harris used “I’m not finished talking” during the 2020 US Vice Presidential debate

In a video call, you can also raise your digital hand ✋to let other participants know you haven’t finished yet. The same hand also works if you have a point to make but struggle to cut in.

Your voice earns respect

Everyone hates meetings, but while they continue to play a critical role in our work, it’s worth making them work for you. If you’re in the meeting, you’ve earned the right to have your say in the policies, strategic direction or culture of the organisation you work for. So, put your imposter syndrome aside, and have your say. 📢

30 second action

Amplification is a tactic that was popularised by female Whitehouse staffers under President Obama. When a woman made a key point in a meeting, another woman would repeat it and give a nod to the source. The tactic worked – it prevented men from claiming all ideas as their own, and men, including Obama, began calling more often on women and junior aides.

For allies and overachievers: when you next spot a woman at the table with something to add, take your lead from an example in ‘Women, Find Your Voice’ and create a safe space for her to speak up.

I have some feedback for you…

Have you ever spotted someone with spinach in their teeth and didn’t say anything? You’re not alone. A recent study showed that over 98% of people withhold feedback, even when there’s very little on the line – despite most of us wishing we received a lot more of it.

If you’re one of 63% of employees wanting more feedback, our bet is that your workmates are falling short because they’re deeply uncomfortable delivering it. We live in a knowledge economy, where communication, critical thinking, agility and problem-solving are essential skills. Yet, leaders rarely receive formal feedback training and are ill-prepared to provide it. Madness.

Meaningful feedback directly correlates with high performance, so it’s vital to seek it out – even if “I have some feedback for you” are the six most feared words in workplace vernacular. The biggest impact you can have on the amount you’re given is by focusing on how you receive it, so here’s how to turn on the tap:

1. Short-circuit your defensive instincts

Think of feedback as a gift. The giver doesn’t want to hurt your feelings, and your response will hugely impact whether they’ll give you that gift again. 

While we all recognise that feedback is helpful, fear of failure can cause our lizard brains to initiate fight, flight or freeze mode. Our amygdala can’t tell the difference between physical and psychological threats and will jump in to ‘save’ us by overriding our logical brains – leading to an irrational (and sometimes embarrassing) response. 

We’ve all been guilty of defensiveness when hearing something less than glowing about ourselves – especially if it hits a little too close to home. Fortunately, the best antidote is mindfulness. If you feel your heart rate rising, start by saying ‘thank you’, then pause, take a deep breath and pay attention to the physical changes in your body. This will give you those vital seconds to gather yourself and convey your appreciation (even if you don’t feel it yet!).

2. Listen to understand

We all think that we are good listeners, but research shows we only remember 25-50% of what we hear. When it comes to feedback, active listening is critical to understanding the message, not just what you assume it might be. Not convinced? Watch Couples Therapy.

It can be hard to rearrange your features into a ‘tell me more’ expression when someone has just delivered an emotional sucker punch. So try this tactic: repeat back the key points as you heard them. It’ll force your brain to focus on listening to understand instead of thinking about how you’ll respond.

While some can immediately respond to feedback in an elegant manner, most of us are safer sticking with questions to ensure we digest the detail. It’s ok to finish the conversation with, “Thanks for the feedback! I’m going to think about it a bit more and get back to you”. Then take the time to go for a walk, drink, or cry because this stuff is hard. 🫶

3. Create and share your action plan

Your actions after receiving feedback are an excellent opportunity to develop your leadership skills. Even if you wind up disregarding some points (and that’s ok, you don’t need to accept everything!), you’ll likely identify a few things you’re happy to work on.

Firstly, validate the feedback. Opinions are always valuable, but they’re sometimes inaccurate. When dealing with a sample size of one, consider going over the key points with some trusted colleagues. It might be tempting to share your emotional response, or shoulder tap people who dismiss the feedback, but resist that urge! 

Secondly, develop a short list of improvements and start implementing them. Begin with visible actions, so your colleagues benefit from the immediate effects – they’ll respect your commitment to improving yourself. 

Finally, thank the person who gave you the feedback and share your actions. There’s nothing like creating a positive feedback loop to inspire more of it. 

Join the conversation on LinkedIn

30 Second action

Before your next meeting, identify one attendee you trust to be honest. Share that you are trying to improve your meeting effectiveness and ask them to spot something you might be able to improve. Put into practice what you’ve just learned about receiving feedback!

5 communication lessons from Queen of Pop, Indra Nooyi

Indra Nooyi, an Indian-born American businesswoman and one of the world’s most popular leaders, took PepsiCo’s top spot in 2006. The architect of Performance with Purpose, Nooyi transformed the company over 12 years – delivering 80% growth alongside pioneering strategies to improve the company’s impact on people and the planet.

Now retired, Nooyi is committed to helping other women reach their full leadership potential. She’s penned several books, released a MasterClass and shared countless lessons on climbing the corporate ladder. She attributes her immense success to a single ‘hip pocket’ skill: her ability to communicate complex problems succinctly and clearly. Supporting the theory that failure is a prerequisite for success, this superpower came out of a super flunk – Nooyi didn’t pass Yale’s communication course the first time. It was only during her second attempt that Nooyi learned the value of excellent communication and started honing the skills that became her biggest professional asset. We’ve bottled her lessons from numerous interviews to give you the cheat sheet:

1. Be ultra-prepared

It sounds counterintuitive, but Nooyi believes it’s nearly impossible to simplify information unless you deeply understand the topic. By being the best informed, Nooyi cleared her path to the top – making outsized contributions and gaining a reputation for being indispensable.

Before Nooyi made the tough decision to overhaul PepsiCo’s IT systems, she read 10 textbooks that spanned enterprise systems, process mapping, data warehousing, and data management (#yawn). While many leaders rely on advisors, she credits her often mind-numbing legwork with winning over sceptics and making better decisions. But preparation isn’t always boring – before a keynote speech to the Bowling Proprietors Association, newbie Nooyi boosted her credibility by knocking pins for a week.

2. Tailor messages to how people speak

Nooyi invests the effort required to craft simple, repeatable messages. Because human brains have trouble remembering lists of more than three or four items (we’re pushing it with 5!), she often condenses messages into succinct phrases.

When PepsiCo leaders wanted to coin their purpose-led strategy the “4 Ps: performance, product, planet, and people”, Nooyi disagreed. She wanted an impactful commitment, not fluffy PR jargon. “Performance with Purpose (PwP)” signalled the intent to take deliberate action to tackle rising health concerns and environmental issues. It was also memorable and repeatable – creating the intended movement.

3. Make it personal

Getting buy-in for change takes work, especially when things are going well. What is the best way to do it? Nooyi believes in making it personal.

After identifying industry-changing megatrends, such as a shift toward healthier eating and drinking, Nooyi knew PepsiCo needed to respond – but there was internal resistance to changing successful product lines. To get buy-in, “every part of the transformation had to be framed in a story or experience they were facing”. She talked to her team about executives’ eating and drinking habits and told the story of her daughter’s birthday party guest who wasn’t allowed to drink Pepsi!

4. Thank people (and their parents!)

A genuine and thoughtful thank you goes a long way to strengthening connections and building trust.

When Nooyi became CEO, friends and family showered her mother with praise. Realising parents’ sacrifices to support their children, Nooyi embarked on an epic ‘thank you’ note writing campaign to the 400-odd parents of her direct reports. Anyone who has unexpectedly received a letter will be unsurprised by the overwhelming and far-reaching positive response.

5. Start with the conclusion.

Nooyi learned that simplifying communication starts with the conclusion (or recommendation). A big, surprise finale may sound exciting, but in an attention economy, your audience wants you to get to the point… Something to think about when crafting your next email reply!

Want more?

For more insights from this inspirational leader, follow Indra Nooyi on LinkedIn (we loved her Women’s Day article!)

30 SECOND ACTION

Next time you hear an acronym, jargon or a concept that you don’t understand, Google it. Bonus points if you email us what it means.

Why an action? Big change comes from tiny habits that stack up over time. Yesterday, you may have ignored a term you didn’t know, but today, you learned what it means. Tomorrow? You could take the lead and replace jargon with plain english.

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