As published on Forbes
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At a recent networking event, I witnessed the stark difference between how a female lawyer and a male lawyer touted a recent accomplishment. Both are highly respected, with talent beyond reproach. They both head up their own individual burgeoning practices with partners and associates. Both had been named as a Top 50 lawyer in Southern California — certainly an accolade well deserved and only awarded to the best of the best. When the male attorney introduced himself, he simply stated that he was named as a top attorney. Period. A few minutes later, when the female attorney introduced herself, she said she had also received this accolade, then almost under her breath but still very audibly, said, “I don’t know why.”
What? If I could have, I would have hit the replay button so she could omit those self-deprecating words and simply stand in the powerful truth that she had been recognized professionally.
While this isn’t the first time I’ve observed a woman in effect putting herself down, it still sent a shockwave through me. I know from my work as an executive coach that many women struggle with the concept of self-promotion. While it’s 100% factual that this female attorney received a professional accolade, I can imagine that her mentioning it publicly may have felt boastful, so she softened it with the “I don’t know why” disclaimer.
There’s no doubt that engaging in self-promoting activities is a delicate balance for women. On the one hand, conveying one’s contributions is associated with professional advancement, yet by doing so, women risk being seen as arrogant and less likable. So what’s a woman to do?
Turn to the world of improv!
While there are innumerable valuable skills that improv teaches, including the power of “yes, and,” listening, embracing failure, and authenticity, I want to hone in on the idea of status. In work and in life, we cannot get away from the dynamics of status because it’s woven into every interaction, especially in the workplace. And status isn’t limited to simply one’s title. While title can surely convey status, our verbal and non-verbal choices also communicate it. For instance, when the female attorney whispered, “I don’t know why,” she expressed low status.
The good news is that status is not fixed. Rather, it’s dynamic and fluid. It changes according to our relationship with ourselves, others and the environment.
In improv, there’s the concept of high-status and low-status characters. Low-status characters may engage in such behaviors as turning their toes inward while standing, speaking quietly, having drooped shoulders and taking up as little room as possible. Conversely, high-status characters may stand firmly on both feet, have erect and open posture, speak clearly and loudly, and take up a lot of space. For women, practicing high-status behaviors may be a way to engage in self-promotion without feeling boastful.
In this game, players pull a playing card from a deck and affix it to their forehead with a rubber band or piece of string. Here, a player cannot see her own status but can see that of others based on the suit of the card. A scene is then enacted with players behaving toward others according to the card suit while trying to figure out their own status.
Adopted on an individual level, I ask women leaders to keep a card deck in their desk, then before a meeting or interaction, pull the card that conveys the status they wish to embody. Perhaps for a high-stakes negotiation, she might wish her status to be like the Queen of Spades. Or for wooing a new executive to join the firm, perhaps the Queen of Hearts. For a meeting with peers, a Ten of Diamonds might be her choice.
Three players begin acting out a scene, then a fourth player, the director, enters and gives suggestions. I’ve adopted this exercise with several clients and did so recently with an executive vice president of a financial institution. I asked her to imagine and describe a real work situation she was facing. I then asked her to see the situation as a movie, with her stepping back and becoming the director.
As the director, she had the power to determine the attitude, mindset, behaviors and words of herself, the “actress.” This exercise allowed her to feel more confident about the upcoming work situation and elevate her status in preparation for it.
Players walk normally around the room, then use something to inspire them to affect how they walk (an emotion, an object, a profession, etc.). This exercise teaches how behaviors, attitudes and status can be affected simply through being inspired. With individual clients, I ask them to think of leaders they admire. Then I dig deeper by asking the client to identify the traits, behaviors and attitudes of the leaders. Now, the client has her very own inspiration list that she can use to adopt the qualities of leaders she respects. The client can use this list to boost her status.
Going back to our female attorney who whispered, “I don’t know why” — what a difference improv could have made for her, and how it could have both raised her status and helped her step into her authentic power.