Tips for avoiding the “bitchy boss” label

by Janie Smith29 Jul 2014
Have you ever been accused of being a “bitchy boss” for doing your job well?

According to Lawrence Polsky, managing partner at consulting firm PeopleNRG, high-achieving women who take charge and push people to create results often end up being denigrated rather than lauded for their efforts.

“Ninety per cent of my executive coaching clients over the past 20 years have been women,” Polsky wrote in a blog post.

“What I have found over the years is that the reason they are called bitchy or some version of that, by their team or colleagues, comes down to one thing: the perception of being ‘too’ assertive.
Yes, being called bitchy can also be a way for employees to undermine a women leader they don’t like or are jealous of.”

However, Polsky said complaints about a boss’ behaviour could also be genuine concerns.

He surveyed professionals on their perceptions of bitchy bosses and found that 89% said it reduced team productivity, while 87% said they or someone on their team had left their job because of it.

Polsky came up with strategies to help women in roles which require assertiveness to change negative perceptions.
  1. Make feedback a personal matter
“Carrie was asked to get coaching because her team wrote a letter to HR saying that she was terrorising them and needed to be removed. She was shocked. I discovered that her feedback being perceived as overly aggressive. Her team worked in an open cubicle space. To be efficient she would pop into the cubicle and give feedback right there. In essence, she was giving her team feedback, in public. Employees were offended, hurt and embarrassed because they knew others could hear. They felt that constructive feedback was very personal and should only be shared in private, so their peers wouldn’t hear it.”
  1. Try “side to side”
“In addition to location, body position is also important to consider when giving feedback. Have you ever noticed that men do things side by side? So to reduce the impression that you are overly aggressive, you might try sitting side to side with a man when discussing touchy subjects and not looking at him directly. Sometimes intense direct eye contact can be perceived as challenging, judgmental or aggressive.”
  1. Know when to fight
“Susan, the new leader of a technology group, was a hard-driving doer. After a few months her team had disengaged. Without realising it, her fast-moving, winning-focused approach had left her team reluctant to contribute. Whenever a new idea emerged from the team, she would debate it and try to win by taking their idea and making it better. The result was they felt insulted and micromanaged. Susan learned from this when it was important enough to fight to improve an idea, and when it was better to have her team's idea be the 'winning' idea.”
4.Share your heart
“A key turning point for Susan (the leader from the example above) was when she apologised to her team in a team meeting I was facilitating. I was personally moved when she spoke from her heart about how much she cared about her team, and was driven to make the team and everyone in it a success. So don't be afraid, in the privacy of your team, to open up and let them know what drives you and what makes you who you are.”
  1. Don't overcompensate
“Paula was the only women on the management team in an engineering company. Her complaint was that she was being minimised and not being listened to. It turned out that Paula was overcompensating for the male culture. Knowing that the men were heard by being loud and overpowering each other's ideas, so she would do the same. Instead, she learned to ask a lot of questions, understand their point of view first – and then present her ideas, considering their needs and position. This doesn’t mean coddling your male colleagues. Rather, it’s about showing that you value other people’s point of view when presenting your own.”
  1. Use the Ed Koch approach
“Ed Koch, former mayor of New York, would walk through the streets saying, ‘How am I doing?’ waiting for feedback from the people. All of the examples above used the Ed Koch Approach, but after the situation became a problem. It is far more effective to use the Ed Koch Approach before there is an issue, on an ongoing basis, creating an ongoing dialogue about how to be a better leader.”


  • by Rachael Gulliver 29/07/2014 12:53:01 PM

    These strategies are quite useful tips, however why are they directed only at women? Many men have the same issues and they aren't perceived as bitchy or aggressive -and that is the main issue here. Especially situation number 5 - why does Paula need to be the one to change her approach? Sounds to me like the entire management team needs to shape up.

    Where is the survey on aggressive male bosses in comparison? This article makes me realise how far we still have to go for men and women to be seen as equals in the workplace. Perhaps Lawrence Polsky should be redirecting his coaching to men as well?

  • by Judi Anderson 29/07/2014 1:19:02 PM

    This reverse bullying is called "mobbing". A few years ago Griffith Uni researcher Linda Shallcross wrote about it. "Workplace mobbing is defined as a malicious attempt to force a person out of the workplace through unjustified accusations, humiliation, general harassment, emotional abuse, and/or terror. Whereas bullying primarily refers to "individual harassment", mobbing refers to situations of subtle and less direct "collective harassment"." Victims are usually enthusiastic, committed, high achievers who want to introduce change to apathetic, resistant, passive aggressive groups.

  • by Catherine Cahill 29/07/2014 2:43:15 PM

    I don't think we need to resurrect a term that has been used to denigrate women for being assertive. If the behaviour is Bullying - let's just call it that - no need to attach a gender or a stereotype

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