A few months ago, I wrote an eBook called What Your Team Isn’t Telling You: The Assertive Woman’s Guide to Hacking Passive Aggression at Work. In it, I covered five secrets behind the whisper campaigns that assertive women face sooner or later in their careers. Much of this can be traced back to a family dynamic that I call maternal triangulation.
Before we dive into it, I feel it’s important to anchor on the mission of this movement—which is to inspire both men and women to see the roots of their own resistance to female leadership. This is no easy task, because most of these women have a history of overusing their strengths and inadvertently giving people ammunition against them.
While I certainly don’t condone any bad behavior of the part of strong women, they still get labeled in negative ways even when they have worked hard to adjust for others’ personalities and styles. The connection to triangulation dynamics is clear—get someone in authority to join forces with those who are gunning for the strong woman.
You might ask, “Isn’t this just garden variety sexism” Well, not really. People quietly circling around to knock a strong woman down a notch or ten is far more insidious than someone merely taking a woman for granted, underestimating her, or denying her opportunities. When the pack circles around an assertive, female leader, it’s generally because they want to rebel against her real or imagined control over them.
If we give this dynamic any thought at all, we tend to blame societies or business cultures–but those are made up of people—from families. I’ve found that resistance to female leadership began right at the dinner table. This is where we first learn to resent women in authority—and all genders do it.
It starts over eating our vegetables…using our napkin…how we’re dressed….or whether our homework is done. Dads try to keep the peace by allowing the kids to roll their eyes or argue with mom to dismiss her high standards. It’s not malicious, it’s a social coping mechanism; but it’s also classic triangulation. The kids learn it’s okay to resist mom as long as dad allows it.
I know, not everyone hangs onto to resentment for their mothers. Some of us grow up without a mom, but society fills in the narrative that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. It’s not about disliking our moms, it’s about our desire for independence from them.
When an assertive woman shows up at work or in our personal lives, we reflexively, often unconsciously, pull back from her. The strong woman’s deadly sins include vision, intuition, self-advocacy, decision making, and accountability–all of which trigger our rebellious inner teenager. I’m sure you’ve seen full grown adults regress before your very eyes.
The problem isn’t one of policy—we’re starting to get those right. It’s in the milliseconds it takes to dismiss a woman’s voice. That’s the next frontier. Our unconscious bias manifests in: lack of support and empathy for assertive women; shifting into neutral when a woman is in charge; or making poor decisions to avoid yielding to a woman’s logic
You may well have been on the receiving end of this—but consider whether you’ve been the perpetrator. As much as I wanted to think I was above behavior like this, I realized that I’d triangulated against women at work myself, albeit infrequently. Society had even programmed me against women of my own kind!
When you see people at work join forces in spreading rumors or discontent about you or another assertive, female leader—that’s maternal triangulation. Just like the kids at the dinner table getting dad to side with them, it may even go as far as people roping your boss into their campaign against you.
Let us know how we can help you to live in truth and lead from the heart.