Bossy is not a synonym for assertiveness, or other positive executive leadership skills, and women are labelled bossy in the workplace more often than men are. But what lessons can be learned — for both genders — from this blatant, and damaging, double-standard?
The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) conducted research on the role of the word bossy in the workplace. Their results show a consistent trend that being bossy in the workplace has negative consequences, and those consequences are particularly harsh for women.
Bossy coworkers are described as unpopular and unlikely to be successful in the future. Acting bossy is related to being seen as less promotable by bosses for both men and women. However, the relationship was stronger for women.
Bossy women coworkers are seen as more unpopular and less successful compared to bossy men coworkers. And yet when researchers looked at bossy behaviors – without the bossy label – men are just as likely as women to act bossy in the workplace.
The earliest citation of bossy in the Oxford English dictionary refers to a sentence from 1882 stating “There was a lady manager who was dreadfully bossy.” Use of the word bossy peaked in the 1930s (when women were often accused of ‘stealing’ male jobs) and in the 1970s (when the women’s movement led to an increase of women in the workplace).
The word bossy, and its link to leadership, was brought into fresh focus by the ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Prominent backers – including Condoleezza Rice, Anna Maria Chávez, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé – helped amplify the core message viz that from a young age, girls are trained to be quiet and submissive. When women break gender norms, they are often criticized, disliked, and called bossy – a word that discourages women from aspiring to lead.
Men who are labelled as bossy or who act in bossy ways are not rewarded in the workplace. They too are seen as unpopular, unsuccessful, and not promotable—just to a lesser extent compared to women.
The six key indicators of bossiness:
The word bossy describes a pattern of poor interpersonal skills. This is a serious problem in the workplace. Research has shown that failing to manage interpersonal relationships at work predicts leadership derailment - the situation in which high-potential leaders end up getting fired or barred from promotion.
In the past some might have been tempted to encourage women to be “more like men” in order to create more women leaders. However, when it comes to being bossy, being more like men is not likely to get women very far. If anything, research suggests that men need to focus on not being bossy just as much as women do in order to become more effective, and more promotable, leaders.
Bossy: What’s Gender Got to Do with It? Cathleen Clerkin, Christine A. Crumbacher, Julia Fernando, and William A. (Bill) Gentry. CCL® Whitepaper (2015).
Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Alice H. Eagly & Steven J. Karau. Psychological Review (2002).
Beyond the double bind: Women and Leadership. Kathleen Hall Jamieson (1995).
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