I remember watching an episode of House of Cards (pre-Spacey revelation) where, in one scene, a character’s loved one is traumatically murdered, and just a few weeks after suffering this loss, his male boss comments on his slightly sloppy appearance, saying, “I don’t know what’s going on in your personal life, but it seems to be entering the workplace. Appearances matter.”
This is the kind of response I would expect from the definition of “leader” that I’ve become accustomed to: Do your job, compartmentalize the rest. This leader demands and commands respect and attention, they succeed (all the time), they’re noticeable, they don’t put up with any bullshit. These attributes, as I hope you’ve noticed by this time in cultural history, are traditionally masculine characteristics. They are words of domination, of presence, of power. I believed for the longest time that to be in power, I had to be this specific definition of powerful.
I’m thrilled to be living in an age where more women than ever before are rising to the highest offices across a variety of fields. They are taking charge and being seen, and it’s a slow progression in the right direction. Women are proving that they, too, can command respect and not put up with any bull****—they, too, are the bosses, not just bossy. I’ve loved watching and contributing to this fight against gendered language, about who can exhibit which characteristics: women are “bossy” when men are “bosses,” women are “aggressive” when men are “persistent,” women are “know-it-alls” when men are “competent.” Let’s continue the good work of opening up these traditionally masculine characteristics and positions to all people.
But here’s my current problem: Positions of power still praise masculinity, and I haven’t seen a place for femininity. Characteristics that revolve around emotional connectedness and care go not just overlooked but degraded in the workplace, snubbed as forms of weakness.
Guess what? They’re not weaknesses. They are powerful strengths, and it’s high time you (and I!) accept them as such. Often, bad days and breakups and financial struggles are required to be checked at the office door. There are so many studies on the importance of empathy and emotional competence in the workplace, that ability to recognize, validate and support the emotions—both struggles and successes—of employees and team members.
I’m a firm believer in the fact that all people want to be known and to be loved; of course, not by everyone to the same degree, but that principle of desiring acceptance and support stands. Those kinds of relationships are marked by traditionally feminine characteristics: empathy, sensitivity, vulnerability, patience, compassion. Leaders who activate these traits in their workplaces treat their team members as people first, rather than producers; it’s a healthy and holistic way to view work.
A great boss is empathetic and recognizes that every member of their team is coming from a unique context, and that context matters. Their perspective and worldview informs how they work and what that product will look like. A great boss will take the time to not only understand their perspective but make each person feel their perspective is understood. This involves active listening—maintaining eye contact and positive body language, asking open-ended questions about experiences or potential problems, withholding judgment about what they say and reflecting what you’re hearing back to them.
A great boss not only knows how to be empathetic, but knows when to deploy that empathy. Sensitivity is the ability to be in tune with the emotional situation of others. When you run into a friend and you can just tell something is off—that’s sensitivity. When a team member walks into a meeting seeming distracted or upset, privately checking in with them (or asking another team member who knows them well) to acknowledge their emotional situation does wonders for making that employee feel cared for. While you might not be able to do anything to help, you can at least adjust your expectations accordingly. Expecting people to do the extra emotional labor—especially women, for whom there is higher scrutiny of emotionality in the workplace—of fighting off the reality of their emotions all day every day is, in my opinion, an unfair ask.
A great boss knows that their own vulnerability leads to authenticity in the workplace. If you’re a leader and all you do is win, win, win, no matter what, your team is going to have a hard time when they inevitably don’t win. If you’re able to be a bit transparent, accept and be honest about your own mistakes and bad days, your team members will feel much more comfortable doing the same. You want a team of people who are comfortable in their workspaces and feel that they are safe to be themselves—sometimes winning, sometimes messy.
A great boss will go the step beyond creating a space where their team feels comfortable, creating a space where their team can thrive. Love can be a taboo word in the workplace, but I really see it as a way to make sure your team knows you care for them as holistic people. Not everyone receives feedback or encouragement in the same way. One of your employees may feel understood and encouraged through public affirmation, whereas another employee may fall apart under the spotlight; he or she may best respond to a one-on-one conversation where they know they have your full attention and consideration. Taking an interest in your team beyond what they can do for you—to show them that you value them inherently as people, not just producers—does great things for your team chemistry and work product.
Jane the Virgin actress Yael Grobglas said recently on a women-in-television panel, “Many times women feel as though they have to be masculine to be in power. We don’t have to do that. We, as women, can be in power and be whatever we want, masculine or feminine.” I’m ready to see femininity in power, and leaders who exude characteristics of emotional connectedness and care.
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