When your employee is perceived as ‘aggressive’
Rob Kaiser and I conducted an analysis of 360 degree assessments of 857 men and 857 women in the US, Western Europe and Australia. Among other things, we found that high-achieving women are often seen as overly aggressive but not because of unconscious bias. Instead they were being overly aggressive believing the job demanded it. And, they are seen as not strategic enough.
So what does it mean to be overly aggressive?
Many women when receiving that feedback, feel they are being punished for pushing through projects on behalf of their superiors or for being good at executing. When told they are too aggressive, they can of course feel offended and can become defensive. So let’s look first at what people mean when they say someone is too aggressive.
Typically, when a person finds himself or herself in conflict with co-workers, there is a lot at stake for both parties and emotions run high. There is then risk in being seen as too aggressive. The “too aggressive” tag can occur for several reasons:
1) pushing the manager’s agenda too hard
2) fighting too many battles/issues at the same time
3) expecting to win every argument
4) expecting to be right and/or to have other acknowledge he/she is right too frequently.
Being too aggressive can also be very overt:
1) pushing points when a decision has already been made
2) making comments in a way that is seen as confrontational and
3) fighting battles that are not hers.
Sometimes it might be something as simple as expecting all conversations to happen around the table and therefore not seeking buy-in from others before important meetings.
To give effective feedback, drop the “too aggressive” tag and focus instead on which of the items listed above is really underneath your perception about aggressiveness. Prepare an example of that single item because when you can point to specific examples of these behaviours, then you can give feedback in a way that is not akin to waving a red flag in front of a bull.
For example, instead of saying your direct report is “overly aggressive” try using feedback such as: “Last week in the meeting on project x, you insisted several times, that you had predicted the outcome we were facing – that you had been right. The result was dis-engagement. I felt bad enough about the outcome, those comments left me feeling further defeated.”