Poor aim

Sheryl Sandburg, CEO of Facebook, along with a number of other famous women, are on a campaign to stamp out the word “bossy”. Let me just start by saying I’m not against the intention. If people are applying a double-standard and insulting girls for acting the same way that is acceptable for boys,  then that needs to change. But you’re not going to accomplish that by banning a word.

Oh, I understand the intent there, too. It’s really got nothing to do with the word. It’s about marketing. It’s easier to deliver the message if it’s simple, like “Ban Bossy” (poor cow!). A campaign to “eliminate dual standards in leadership behavior” just isn’t as catchy. But nevertheless, banning the word does not begin to fix the problem.

For starters, though pithy, “Ban bossy” is too vague. Unless you already know or take the time to learn what it’s about it could easily sound like some sort of “anti-bullying campaign lite”. Not only should we get rid of bullies, but even the bossy people should be banned! But even assuming people understand what they’re trying to say, it’s still got a number of problems.

Just think of any number of expletives. We’ve tried banning those for years, especially ones that are directly insulting. How much good has that done? Heck, many of the words people have tried to ban have been adopted by the very people who were supposedly offended by them. In what world does that make sense? Oh yeah, ours.

The word itself is not even a symptom, it’s a medium. Removing the medium won’t change the messenger or the message. You could remove everyone’s middle fingers and they’ll just find another finger to flip you off with. The sentiment will remain the same, whether they show the finger or thumb their nose.

So please, if you must try to initiate social change would you stop lopping off a few leaves and insisting you’re pruning the tree? Attack the problem, not the indicator. Rather than teaching women to get upset and demand negative words be banned, why not teach women to ignore the wording and address the criticism head on? Which is going to be more effective, removing all the words someone might use to put a woman down, or for her to talk to the person employing those words to call their attention to the double-standard? Passive-aggressively forcing people to adopt new vocabulary isn’t going to address the problem as effectively as addressing it directly, calmly, and rationally. Like an adult. Like a person who is neither passive-aggressive nor bossy.

And I hate to break it to you, but some people, men and women, are really, truly bossy. It’s okay to call them on it. What Sandburg and company are trying to defeat is the misapplication of a word, not the true definition of the word. I’ve seen some bossy bosses and co-workers, both men and women. Truly bossy, not just assertive. Most of my bosses have been women, and I’ve actually never had a direct manager I would consider bossy. Assertive? Certainly. So what? Assertive is not offensive to those who are truly fair-minded. Bossy is…something much worse.

But banning the word is not going to change a bossy person. Nor is it going to change a person who uses such a word just to put someone down and intimidate them into behaving more meekly. Why ruin a perfectly good word for nothing? Let’s fix the people, instead. Not as easy nor as catchy I know, but much more effective.


Update: Here’s another take on things. Olga Khazan points out that personality styles should also be considered. I’d have to agree. I had a manager tell me once that I needed to speak up in meetings. That’s just not my style. I tend to listen more than I talk, and if what I would say is getting said, I feel no reason to say it again. If I’m never a leader it’s not because someone called me bossy and intimidated me into silence. It’s because I’m just not that good at–or interested in, for that matter–marketing myself.

That’s another reason why I find movements such as Ban Bossy to be misguided. They see the problem, but have they really done their research as to why that problem may exist? I’m sorry, but Sheryl Sandburg is probably not good anecdotal evidence of why women don’t want to be leaders–she is one! So, in a sense, she invalidates her own claim. Clearly someone calling her bossy didn’t deter her. So how can she be so sure that’s the problem? The second paragraph in Khazan’s article tells me more about where the problem lies than everything I’ve heard about Ban Bossy so far. It’s not necessarily being called bossy that bothers girls, it’s being perceived as bossy.

Just because girls are more concerned than boys about being considered bossy doesn’t mean the problem is with the word. And, for that matter, is it really a bad thing to be concerned about being seen as overbearing? True leaders know how to get people on board without being bossy. Most true leaders are not bossy. They’re influential. They know better ways to get the best out of people. Just because boys are less concerned about being bossy doesn’t mean they’re any better leaders. Quite the opposite might be true. They might be worse managers and leaders because they’re not as clued in to how they’re being perceived.

I know it’s popular to believe that girls and boys are exactly the same and it’s just how we treat them that determines their future, but what if that’s bogus? What if there really are differences? There are differences between individual boys, just as there are difference between individual girls. How about if we stop wasting energy on these silly campaigns to try and force everyone to be the same and instead treat each individual as an individual? Why don’t we find out who they really are, determine their strengths, coach them on how to make the most of what they’ve got, and encourage them to pursue what they want?

The majority of my managers throughout my career have been women. For the most part I’ve worked well with them and have not considered them bossy. Wouldn’t it be silly if it turned out the real reason why there are so few female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies is because women just want something different out of life? If true, is that so wrong? I’m a man, and I have no desire to be a CEO of any corporation. That’s just not important to me. Fortunately, because I’m a man, I don’t have an entire gender out to force me to be something I don’t want to be. Please, don’t start any movements on my behalf.

They may as well come up with a Ban Introversion campaign. It’d be about as effective. You don’t create strong leaders by passive-aggressively trying to banish negative feedback.

Ban Bossy is rich with irony.

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