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THE B!TCH DEBATE – Is Being Too Nice Really Holding You Back?

Do we really need to “bring back the bitch” in order to get ahead? Are all of these leadership and workplace commentators that I’ve been reading lately really encouraging women to become belligerent control freaks in order to progress in their careers?

I’m not into it.

When I hear the word bitch, I associate it with its widely held – and derogatory – meaning. The definition has it that a bitch is a woman who is rude, aggressive, malicious, is only concerned with herself and her needs, and due to her acts and nature is loathed by almost all others she interacts with.

So if the logic holds, I need to sacrifice my natural tendencies, my networks and close associates, in order to be successful and achieve my dreams, right? If you’re anything like me, you’ll be very uncomfortable with that sort of trade-off.

From the outset, one thing that concerns me about all this is the assumption that, lurking inside all of us, is an inner ‘bitch’. Some form of dual personality that we keep chained up inside, one that is able to be unleashed to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting world. And even if we were willing and able to dredge this persona up, is being terrible to others really necessary? There’s got to be some sort of logic behind this ‘bitch theory’, so let’s take a look at it by reviewing some of the typical behavioural traits and see what, if anything, we can take from it.

Behavioural Trait 1 – Aggressiveness

Aggression, often misinterpreted by the aggressor as being ‘strong’, is very often intimidating in social interactions and used to dominate others and allow the aggressor to determine the outcome of a situation. Aggression in the workplace is often inappropriate, inflicts damage on the standing or self-esteem of others, and at its extreme, can pave the way to a bullying scenario.

Does this mean that we must forgo this ‘hard’ trait and therefore be ‘soft’ in order to avoid putting others offside?  Not quite.  Rather than being aggressive, think ‘assertive’ or even better ‘influential’.  Influential people use a whole range of skills – negotiation, communication, rapport-building – and leverage their reputations, connections and relationships in order to achieve what they need.

When you are being influential, you are confident, your tone is respectful, you look people in the eye, make statements clearly and calmly, and seek commitments and buy-in from colleagues. By being influential, you still have your eyes on the prize, you are still determined to achieve your outcomes, but you are far more likely to bring colleagues and stakeholders along with you, preserving the relationships, building your positive reputation, all of which is crucial for future interactions.

So to be more influential, ask yourself how you might best communicate with your audience in a way that they will respond positively. Think through what you will say before you say it, get straight to the point by avoiding the fluff, and confidently assert yourself when challenged. Think ‘influence’ not ‘dominate’.

Behavioural Trait 2 – Control Freak

The stereotypical bitch is also seen as a ‘control freak’, micromanaging all aspects of a project, constantly in colleagues’ or stakeholders’ faces, dominating interactions to ensure that all activities are being done in the way that she has dictated.  Along with aggression, adopting this trait aims to ensure control of an initiative and it also provides her with the sense that she is maximising outputs and mitigating risks.

Another way of achieving the same outcomes is by being ‘focused’ instead of controlling.  By being focused on the end goal and understanding – rather than needing to ‘control’ – all of the steps needed to get there, you open yourself up to countless ways of achieving success, characterised by collaboration and innovation rather than controlling and intimidation.  None of this need impact your responsibilities, the final decision – and accountability therefore – may well still rest with you, but by providing the others the space they need to be their best, greater outcomes become possible.

Behavioural Trait 3 – Unreasonableness

The bitch is often hardheaded, unwilling to change, and entirely unreasonable in her pursuit of her desired outcome.  Closed-minded, unable to consider alternate possibilities, she exudes ‘my way or the highway’.

Or maybe she ended up being branded a bitch because she is simply more comfortable than most with the ability to say ‘no’.  Here’s one we can use, so get comfortable with saying no.  Do it in a way that is non-destructive to relationships and non-dictatorial, but do it whenever it is necessary to keep things on track.  Do it with confidence and the willingness to explain your decision-making process.  And do it without fear of having to reverse that decision in the light of changing circumstances or better arguments being presented.  An inability to say no leaves you vulnerable to others taking liberties with your time and your outcomes and quickly leaves you with a reputation as someone who is easily manipulated.  If none of us want to be perceived to be a bitch, neither do we want to be branded the doormat.

The way we work is an eternal balancing act, one that we achieve through developing – and using – a wide variety of elements in our toolbox.  The way we behave and interact depends on our audience and what works best in a given situation.  Some people respond better when presented with a strong, assertive position, others with a more reasoned, nuanced softer approach.  While my personal preference is to influence through building relationships, yours might be at the stronger end of the spectrum, and may well be determined by your particular workplace culture.  None of this seeks to suggest that any of us should be weak or a pushover, or avoid doing the difficult things through fear of upsetting anyone.  We need to be determined.  We need to be focused on achieving outcomes and progressing in our careers and lives.  But I’m confident that it can be done in a way that preserves relationships, one that influences rather than intimidates.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this one.


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