Bossy vs Boss


Women in Leadership Insight: Bossy vs. Boss

There’s a common challenge facing women in leadership roles, from team leaders right up to the C-suite. It’s a classic communication challenge that reveals the unconscious gender bias of workplace language – and it all starts with the word ‘bossy’. Why is it that the same qualities and behaviours tend to be described differently, depending upon whether they’re attributed to men or women?

Do you recognise any of these scenarios? 

  • Male behaviours that are labelled confident and assertive, are labelled pushy and bossy for women.
  • Men can be level-headed and authoritative, whereas women are more likely to be labelled passive or
  • Men rarely earn labels like gossipy or moody. Women rarely get labelled logical or
  • Male colleagues have robust discussions, female colleagues have arguments.
  • Men have lively debates, women interrupt the person speaking.
  • Men are passionate about issues, women are emotional.

The issue is complex, because even positive terms show a certain kind of bias, e.g., men are more likely to be described as analytical or approachable and women as organised or compassionate. There is a double bind within these linguistic habits. Female leaders often describe having to walk a tightrope between being under-assertive (and labelled as weak) or being over-assertive (and labelled as bossy).

Beating the Bossy Labels

What underlies the use of bossy-type labels is being likeable, a term used by Susan Fleming, a senior lecturer and researcher in Women in Leadership at Cornell University. Men, according to Fleming’s research, can be tough but remain likeable whereas women are often labelled as controlling or over-assertive in the same situations. The best way to build likeability as a leader, is recognising the kind of personality you’re dealing with and how to engage effectively with them – and that’s true for every leader, regardless of gender. 

The 4 Main Personality Types

Based on the work of Carl Jung, these personality groupings have endured within the field of Occupational Psychology and derivations of them are in use in many different psychometric assessment tools today. They work by recognising that people have a personality that’s on display at work, and although we all have days when we might show a different side of ourselves, there’s a general rule of thumb that most of us have traits that define our overall personality within one of the following groupings:

These personality groupings should only to be used as a general guide because the whole point of the exercise is to learn how to connect with people more effectively, not label them. Everyone is different, and building networks of trust with stakeholders is never as simple as ticking a psychometric box, however successful leaders develop skills to deal with the needs and expectations of different personality types. This means they can engage people more effectively, and help them to hear to the ‘authentic you’ speaking – rather than expressing an unconscious bias they don’t even realise they’re labelling you with.

Dealing with Blues

Cool Blue types love problem solving, they want to be right, they need their leaders to be precise. If people are unclear, have incorrect data or make flippant, off-hand remarks, blues tend to have a negative reaction. You need to make sure you know your stuff (numbers at your fingertips) and clearly signpost where the conversation or meeting is heading (clear agendas, time management, outcomes, next steps).

Teambuilding tip: Give blues plenty of evidence to back up your decisions, and give them time to think things over before asking for a response.

Dealing with Reds
Fiery Reds are results-driven people, they want to be in control, and they need their leaders to be direct and to the point. Reds tend to become negative if they feel time is being wasted (so keep red meetings tight), and they dislike procrastination. Reds want to deal with clear, relevant here-and-now issues, and they want to make decisions and act on them. Leading reds means being succinct, addressing difficult issues head on (don’t sugar coat), be directive (they respect decisiveness).

Teambuilding tip: Ask reds in your team to drive the pace of the projects they’re engaged with.

Dealing with Greens
Earth Greens want to be liked by their colleagues, and they need leaders who are positive. Greens want to achieve a consensus, which means they like leaders to own problems and don’t apportion blame (be solutions-focused). They also dislike decisions that feel rushed or create tension in the workplace. Engaging positively with greens means showing you have considered the impact (positive and negative) of decisions on stakeholders and groups within the workplace, and can clearly relate your decisions to personal or professional values.

Teambuilding tip: Greens like to meet informally and discuss issues off the record.

Dealing with Yellows
Sunny Yellows feel most rewarded by having the personal agency to be creative, evangelise about their work and have their contribution acknowledged. They need leaders who are engaging, and react negatively to dry, detail-heavy material or processes that seem unnecessary or bureaucratic. Yellows like a flexible leader who can use stories and examples to engage them, and inspire their natural enthusiasm.

Teambuilding tip: Bring yellows on-board early in projects, and empower them to engage others within your organisation.

Putting Personality Types into Practice

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to leadership communications. Using personality types are a useful tool to help you build positive relationships with different kinds of people, but ultimately, preparation is the key.

Take time before any conversation to consider the person you are speaking to, what they want to achieve from the conversation, and what they care about. Then, frame your approach to work better with their personality type. That doesn’t mean adopting a new persona, be your usual, authentic self but avoid long detail-heavy meetings with people who want short, direct conversations, and vice-versa. These relatively small shifts in your personal communication style could make all the difference between boss, and bossy.