There is a clear gender gap when it comes to leadership today. Women earn 58% of U.S. bachelor’s degrees yet only represent 19% of Congress members, 10% of heads of state, and 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs. There are many reasons why women are under-represented in leadership, but research shows that at least one is that from an early age, women are socially trained to not think of themselves as leaders.

Breaking Gender Norms

The word bossy and its link to leadership have been in the spotlight recently due to the “Ban Bossy” campaign founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. The campaign argues that from a young age, girls are trained to be quiet and submissive, and when they break these gender norms, they are often criticized, disliked and called bossy—a word that can discourage girls from growing up to be leaders. Indeed, there is evidence that by middle school, girls are already less interested in leadership, and one of the reasons girls give for avoiding leadership roles is that they are worried about being called bossy (banbossy.com).

CCL decided to take a look at the role of the word bossy in the workplace. We surveyed 201 people (100 men and 101 women) and analyzed data from 20 years of behavioral data and promotability ratings from CCL’s Benchmarks® assessment.

What it Means to Be Bossy

First, we wanted to determine whether the word bossy is code for assertiveness and leadership skills or whether it really means something else. We asked leaders to define bossy in their own words. There was substantial agreement about what the word means. The six key bossiness indicators were:
  1. Bossy people control others and dictate orders.
  2. Bossy people ignore others’ perspectives.
  3. Bossy people are rude and pushy.
  4. Bossy people micromanage and prescribe specific actions (e.g., saying exactly how or when something should be done).
  5. Bossy people are focused on authority, power, and status.
  6. Bossy people interact in aggressive ways.

Overall, our findings from the survey and Benchmarks analysis show that:

Being bossy is a sign of bad leadership. Bossy is not a synonym for positive executive leadership skills, such as assertiveness.

Women are called bossy in the workplace more often than men. Women were twice as likely to be told they are bossy (33% of women, 17% of men).

All bossy coworkers are described as unpopular and unlikely to be successful in the future, but bossy women are seen as less popular and less successful than bossy males.

Women are twice as likely to be called bossy at work, but they are not more likely to act bossy. Men are just as likely as women to act bossy in the workplace.

Supervisors view bossy women and men as less promotable. Because the relationship was stronger for women, the consequences of being bossy are more serious for women.

Altogether, our results show a consistent trend that being bossy in the workplace has negative consequences, and those consequences are particularly harsh for women.

Banning Bossy in the Workplace

What to do? If you want to #banbossy at work, try these steps:

  • Be more thoughtful about tossing around the word bossy. Understand the term does carry more weight when applied to women, so use it with caution.
  • When giving feedback or addressing interpersonal issues (with men and women), be descriptive and specific about behaviors.
  • Learn and develop strong interpersonal skills. All of us should make the effort to avoid negative interpersonal behaviors to become more effective, more promotable leaders.

This article is adapted from a CCL white paper Bossy: What’s Gender Got to Do with It? Download it for more information about the CCL research and findings.

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