This newsletter is a long time coming because it's a topic I hear from my group and 1:1 clients alike: The topic of assertiveness in women being seen as a problem or weakness, while it's celebrated as a strength in men.

Before we jump into any practical advice, we first need to address the gender bias and stereotypes that are underneath this issue. And before I even do that, I will take a brief moment to acknowledge the utter bullshit it is that we even have to think about this stuff. But, here we are.

Gender Bias and Stereotypes

As stereotypes go, people tend to associate more ‘male' traits with leadership, such as ambition and assertiveness. Women are instead viewed as warm and nurturing.

This is where it gets tricky. Often in a professional setting, women moving into leadership will (of course) display these same leadership traits. However, given they are at odds with how we traditionally view women, they face a penalty when doing so: the likeability backlash.

The likeability backlash is a phenomenon in which women who are seen as ambitious or assertive are also seen as less likeable, which may, in turn, hurt their career progression.

Yes, I know what you're thinking. Displaying the exact characteristics we view as leadership traits in men, can negatively impact a woman's career. Like I said, bullshit.

What can you do when in this situation?

If you've received this feedback, or if you receive it in the future I recommend going through these 4 Cs:

Get clear

Receiving feedback such as, “You're too assertive” should not be taken at face value. Instead, get clarity into what exactly they mean. What examples can they share of situations where you've been too ‘assertive'? Do they feel it's holding you back, and if so, how?

What impact do they feel this is having, and what exactly is the difference between ‘assertive' and ‘too assertive'?

When asking these questions, you can uncover what may be at the root of this comment. Perhaps you've offended someone, or perhaps this is bias rearing its ugly head. Either way, you'll get a much better picture if you get crystal clear instead of leaving the conversation asking yourself what the heck just happened.

Get curious

In this same conversation, get curious about how this person feels you could have better handled the situation. What does “good” look like? How would they addressed it differently?

Curiosity is a true superpower and when you lean into it, you learn a whole lot more in a way that's non-threatening to the other party. In a sensitive situation like this, curiosity can be your best friend.

The key with curiosity is to ask open-ended questions, preferably that start with ‘what' and ‘how'. Asking ‘why' questions can be perceived as overly aggressive.

For example, instead of saying, “Why would you say I'm too assertive?” try “How could I have handled the situation in a way that was assertive, but not too assertive?”

Get consensus

Okay, so one person feels you're too assertive and you've gained clarity into exactly why and the perceived impact. But do others feel the same way, or is this person alone in their belief? How do your direct reports feel? What about your peers?

A great strategy is to do an anonymous 360 review where you can ask lots of open-ended questions and get a sense of how people like working with you.

I have one friend who was told she was too aggressive and people were “scared of her.” Guess what? When she anonymously polled her team, they shared that they had never felt more safe and supported than they do with her as their leader. Turns out, the person providing this feedback was simply dead wrong.

Get contemplative

Here's where you turn your focus inward. How do YOU feel about how you're showing up at work and with your colleagues? Do you feel as though you're bringing your full, authentic self to the table, or have you been trying to fit a mould of leadership that isn't you?

If you feel great about how you're showing up, that's a really important data point and you may want to think twice about changing it. Instead, you may consider changing your environment.

What about the likeability backlash?

Yes, this is a real thing we have to deal with, and there are things you can do to combat it. At the end of the day, it's really up to you whether you want to implement any of these and whether they feel authentic to you.

Personally, I'm all about communicating in a way that is both impactful and supports the people around me, while helping me get to that next level.

Here are 3 tips for reducing the likeability backlash

Add some framing

This is where you add a qualifying statement before your direct, assertive communication. Sheryl Sandberg shares a version of this in her book Lean In when she decides to negotiate her starting salary at Facebook. She acknowledges that she is about to negotiate and reassures them that it will be the only time they are on opposite sides of the negotiation table.

This strategy has been shown to reduce the likeability backlash by around 25%.

Here are some additional examples:

“Given the gravity and urgency of this situation, I'm going to be very direct in how I suggest we manage it.”


“I recognize women are not often expected to be assertive, however I feel as though I need to be direct in order to get this point across.”

You're essentially giving people a ‘heads up' that you're about to be assertive. By creating this awareness, you reduce the bias.

Pair competence and warmth

This is something I've talked about before in reference to charisma – the combination of competence and warmth, and how effective it is.

Women especially tend to focus on how to appear highly competent. We level up, gain accreditations, and find ways to demonstrate our expertise. And it's easy to forget the warmth part.

It's important for either gender to focus on both of these together, but for women, it can also be the key to combatting the likeability backlash. So, the next time you need to tackle a situation head-on in an assertive way, add some warm language to your dialogue. You may notice an improved response.

Be concise

Another topic I bring up a LOT is conciseness. And that's because it makes all communication more impactful – and assertiveness is no exception.

Often, when we're feeling unsure, we tend to ramble, and when this is paired with assertive, direct communication, it can feel ‘too much.' I've been on the receiving end of a conversation like this a few times, and the way I would communicate it to my colleagues would be to put my hands up and say, “Mercy!” That would typically get the point across!

When you need to be assertive, plan what you'll say and make it concise. No need to hammer your point home for 10 minutes.

Until next time friends… ✌️💜