The word “bossy” and its link to leadership has been heavily discussed lately due to the Ban Bossy campaign, founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and backed by world renowned women leaders and luminaries. 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.
In light of this trend and growing interest in the word’s impacts, we conducted research on the role of the word in the workplace.
After surveying about 200 U.S. leaders, we discovered:
- The term isn’t a synonym for assertiveness, or other positive executive leadership skills.
- Women are called bossy in the workplace more often than men are.
- Bossy coworkers are described as unpopular and unlikely to be successful in the future, and bossy women coworkers are seen as more unpopular and less successful compared to bossy men coworkers.
- When we look at bossy behaviors — without the label — men are just as likely as women to exhibit bossiness in the workplace.
- Acting bossy is related to being seen as less promotable by bosses for both men and women. However, the relationship was stronger for women. Altogether, our results show a consistent trend that bossiness in the workplace has negative consequences, and those consequences are particularly harsh for women.
We found that 33% of women and 17% of men reported that they have received feedback that they are bossy at work. In other words, women were twice as likely to be branded as bossy in the workplace.
Yet, when leaders were asked to recall a time they worked with someone else whom they considered bossy, they were about equally likely to describe a man (48%) or a woman (52%). Men were more likely to describe bossy men coworkers, while women were more likely to describe women coworkers.
Neither bossy women nor men are seen as superstars in their organizations, according to our survey participants. Bossiness damages men’s reputations as well as women’s reputations, yet we found that it hurts women more.
Do Women Act Bossier than Men Do?
Contrary to what some might believe, we found women don’t act bossier than men; this is true whether we look at self-report ratings of bossiness or those reported by direct reports or bosses.
This supports the campaign’s argument that women are called bossy for doing the same behaviors as men. Even though women are twice as likely to be called bossy at work, they are not more likely to act that way.
This shows that exhibiting these behaviors is not a feminine trait. If anything, the data showed that men actually exhibited slightly more bossy behaviors compared to women.
Is There a Penalty?
For both men and women, bossiness was related to being seen as less promotable by one’s boss. Men and women are punished for bossiness in the workplace, but the link between bossiness and being unpromotable was stronger for women.
This means that when women act bossy in the workplace, it has more serious consequences than when men do. This pattern is consistent across our 20 years of data.
In fact, looking at this trend across time, the gender gap is actually widening. Twenty years ago, the relationship between bossiness and not being promotable was about the same for men and women. Today, the relationship is significantly stronger for women than it is for men.
What Does This Mean?
Based on our research, we came up with 4 practical recommendations:
- Leaders should make an effort to avoid being bossy at work regardless of gender.
- Leaders should be cautious about using the word “bossy” in the workplace.
- It’s important for leaders to learn and develop strong interpersonal skills.
- Men need to focus on their behavior and perception just as much as women do in order to become more effective, and more promotable, leaders.