Courageous Women Leaders... and the Cultures That Support Them

05/28/2015 05:56 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016


Recently, I've read two excellent articles on why women stay quiet at work which clearly outline the challenges women can face in leadership roles, and the need and benefits for them to have a voice. One, a Harvard Business Review piece, "Women Find Your Voice," by Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn and Mary Davis Holt, the other in The New York Times, "Talking While Female: Why Women Stay Quiet at Work," by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. Both articles highlight key points and tools. Combining them with a few additional tools, as seen in our research and experience with leaders, can significantly increase individual, team, and organizational integrity and success and the integral role that women leadership can play in these outcomes.

Plan & Practice

First, the HBR piece stresses a key aspect of courageous conversations: be mindful, and plan what you're going to say. Two common reactions people report having under stress: losing focus and adding superfluous words, both of which dilute the power and goal of the communication. Here's the critical additional step: practice having the conversation with colleagues or a friend, repeatedly if necessary, before attempting it "live." This is the key element of building skillful courage.

Most of us know "what" to do but not "how" to in a challenging situation, when the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin are pumping through our veins. "If we practice with some level of stress in a 'social flight simulation we, like pilots, create the muscle memory to act in the way that we've practiced when the real situation arises," says Dr. Lynne Henderson, author of The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Building Social Confidence, and creator of Social Fitness Training, a cognitive behavioral training program for teams. She adds, "That way stress becomes a cue for mindful, courageous action rather than avoidance or other unhelpful reactions." Just as most of us would never turn in the first draft of an important document, every time we practice a courageous conversation, we evolve our thinking and strategy, while simultaneously increasing our behavioral flexibility for the real conversation.

Reframe Stress as Your Opportunity for Courage

It's also important to frame our discomfort as something positive, rather than a negative. Our instincts tell us to move away from discomfort or stress. However, if we re-frame this challenge as, "my opportunity for courage - to support values," we can actually stay grounded in our decision, and remain motivated to see it through. In Social Fitness Training™, like athletes, we use adrenalin as a cue to improve our performance. (Kelly McGonigal also does a compelling job illustrating the research and power of reframing our stress response in her TEDTalk and recent book, The Upside of Stress.)

The upshot of practicing these acts of courage? According to Linda Graham, author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, "Brain research shows that practicing and imagining being courageous and resilient actually builds the neural networks for future courage and resilience."

Build Courageous Alliances

Second, many people still think of courage as a lone act. But both articles emphasize and myriad research supports that you need to build allies to make a long-term positive difference. If one person speaks up, it's easy to discount it as one person's opinion (and if you work in a toxic environment, it's easy to become a target for retaliation). Two people speaking up is better. But three people speaking up starts to represent a "point of view," which creates the leverage to change a system.

Building allies also helps create understanding of the current perspectives and norms so that you can be more strategic and effective in communication. In addition, male networks or other majority allies can also help translate and build understanding and empathy within the majority. (Think of Thurgood Marshall and Justice Brennan. The sole black Supreme Court Justice's relationship with the Chief Justice helped translate the black experience to the rest of the all-White Supreme Court - which changed the course of history.)

And women have an advantage in this area. Although the "fight-or-flight" stress response still gets most of the attention, in 2000, Shelley Taylor, PhD, and her colleagues, discovered a more common stress response for women: to "tend-and-befriend." This response makes sense evolutionarily, when tending to the young or more vulnerable, and befriending: building alliances and social support, was the best way for women to protect their offspring and propagate the human species.

Under stress, we all produce oxytocin, but women produce more. Oxytocin is a powerful affiliative hormone that prods us to connect to others and reach out to give or request social support. This then releases more oxytocin, helping us to be courageous by giving us a sense of hope while quieting our fearful thoughts or predictions, such as "I can't do it" or "It won't go well."

For individuals and organizations, one of the best ways to motivate women is to focus on something greater than the self. Having women speak first can therefore help prime the rest of the group to focus on a higher goal, such as the success and integrity of the team and organization, rather than self-interest. (A future blog will go into greater detail about how to leverage the "tend-and-befriend" response while avoiding its potential pitfalls.)

Build a Courageous, Inclusive Culture

Last, both the individual and the organization need to take responsibility and make the changes necessary to ensure that everyone can contribute. Too often, women are given individual coaching without accompanying efforts that encourage input from all team-members - particularly those who normally aren't heard, and that raise the awareness of the rest of the team on the how and why of giving and receiving feedback. Sometimes the most courageous act for those with dominant voices is to be quiet and invite others to participate.

Effective leaders create shared leadership with shared power and responsibility to initiate and experiment with changes that improve collaboration and achieve both individual and shared goals. They develop processes that are designed to ensure ongoing exchanges of important ideas, information and data that enable individual, team and organizational success.

The upcoming blogs will focus on specific examples of courageous women leaders and actions in the workplace. If you would like to join in this important conversation, please share any of your own examples or stories of others' courageous actions using the hashtag: #thecourage2lead. We look forward to hearing about your sources of inspiration. Remember, courage is contagious. Your actions can inspire others and help to create cultures of courage.