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What word do women use that subtly undermines their credibility?

There’s a common word that seems harmless, and many don’t even know that they’re using it and undermining their credibility.

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A noted executive notices a trend

Former Google and Apple executive, investor, and entrepreneur, Ellen Petry Leanse noticed something simple in emails she was receiving from female friends and coworkers, but not males, and asserts that the very word can inadvertently undermine one’s credibility.

“It didn’t take long to sense something I hadn’t noticed before: women used “just” a lot more often than men,” Leanse notes, adding that it’s a permission word that puts one in a position of subordinance, and is one used frequently by women. Could this be undermining women’s credibility in the workforce or in other relationships?

Rather than dissect Leanse’s position, we’ll feature it below and invite you to weigh in with your comments – have you noticed yourself doing this very same thing?

“Just” Say No

By Ellen Petry Leanse, originally published on Women2.com:

A few months into the three-plus years I spent at Eastwick, a Silicon Valley tech strategic communications agency, I noticed something: the frequency with which the word “just” appeared in email and conversation.

Everyone at Eastwick was whip-smart and wired for success. The culture elicited high standards, impact, and accountability. “Type A” set the tone, led by Type A-in-Chief Barbara Bates, a proven entrepreneur and hard-driving, don’t-mince-words business leader. So the frequent appearance of “just” somehow ruffled my feathers. It seemed inconsistent with clarity I experienced at Eastwick, and it made me curious.

I wondered if the high ratio of female to male employees had something to do with it.

I arrived at Eastwick directly from Google, which had a more traditional gender mix, and where I didn’t seem to hear “just” nearly as much. “It’s your imagination,” I told myself. Yet after a while I knew it was real: that “just” just kept showing up in too many emails, meetings, and conversations.

“I just wanted to check in on…”

“Just seeing if you’d decided between….”

“If you can just give me an answer, then…”

“I’m just following up on…”

I started paying attention, at work and beyond. It didn’t take long to sense something I hadn’t noticed before: women used “just” a lot more often than men. It was a hunch – I had no data. Yet even if it was selective listening, it seemed I was hearing “just” three to four times more frequently from women than from men.

It hit me that there was something about the word I didn’t like. It was a “permission” word, in a way – a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking “Can I get something I need from you?”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a “child” word, to riff Transactional Analysis. As such it put the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control. And that “just” didn’t make sense.

I am all about respectful communication. Yet I began to notice that “just” wasn’t about being polite: it was a subtle message of subordination3, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.

And as I began to pay attention, I was shocked – believe me – at how often I used the word.

At Eastwick, people weren’t shy about coaching each other: we all worked hard to better our skills. So I let a memo fly about the “J” word and suggested a moratorium on using it. We talked about what it seemed to imply (everyone agreed) and how different that message was from the way we saw ourselves: trusted advisors, true partners, win-win champions of our clients’ success.

As a team, we started noticing when and how we used “just” and outing each other when we slipped. Over time, frequency diminished. And as it did we felt a change in our communication – even our confidence. We didn’t dilute our messages with a word that weakened them.

It was subtle, but small changes can spark big differences. I believe it helped strengthen our conviction, better reflecting the decisiveness, preparedness, and impact that reflected our brand.

Yet “just” still bugged me. Sure, I’d had my little experiment with friends. But I’d acted on a hunch, maybe right, maybe wrong.

So I ran a test in the real world.

In a room full of young entrepreneurs, a nice even mix of men and women, I asked two people – a guy and a girl – to each spend three minutes speaking about their startups. I asked them to leave the room to prepare, and while they were gone I asked the audience to secretly tally the number of times they each said the word “Just.”

Sarah went first. Pens moved pretty briskly in the audience’s hands. Some tallied five, some six. When Paul spoke, the pen moved…once. Even the speakers were blown away when we revealed that count.

Now, that’s not research: it’s a mere MVP of a test that likely merits more inquiry, but we all have other work to do.

Plus, maybe now that you’ve read this, you’ll heighten your awareness of that word and find clearer, more confident ways of making your ideas known. In other words, help take the “J Count” down. Take the word out of your sentences and see if you note a difference in your clarity – and even the beliefs that fuel the things you say.

It’s actually easy, once you start paying attention. Like it?

If so, then, to riff Nike: well….”Do it.”

The American Genius is news, insights, tools, and inspiration for business owners and professionals. AG condenses information on technology, business, social media, startups, economics and more, so you don’t have to.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Maria

    June 27, 2015 at 11:56 am

    I would add "I'm sorry" to this list. Women tend to apologize for everything. I'm not talking about a real apology, when it's warranted, but for even in the most menial chit-chat.

  2. Jacquie

    July 6, 2015 at 11:36 pm

    How about looking at this from a different perpective. If the use of the word "just" avoids coming across as overly aggressive….maybe men should consider using the word themselves. It might improve communication. Must women always be the ones to change their style to compete in a "man's world"? It is not a man"s world anymore. Men can learn from women as well as the other way around.

    • Lani Rosales

      July 10, 2015 at 12:07 pm

      Interesting insight, Jacquie. It's definitely worth more thought on both sides – I see it less of a gender issue and more of a "say what you mean" for both sexes, which some men find difficult, as do women. Thanks for taking the time to weigh in!

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Move over, rented scooters, lil’ baby Vespas are up to bat

(TECHNOLOGY) Scooters + technology + money = a parody of American life, but Lordy, it’s about to get worse (or better, depending on your perspective).

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As Austin learns to co-exist with the multitude of electric scooterists that have taken over its sidewalks and streets (and the detritus that has come to signal their top of the alternative mobility food chain), the popularity of the service has led to an unexpected evolution: the electric razor scooters may soon be replaced by a new machine.

Well, kind of. Vespa-esque scooters, developed by the company Ojo, are slated to appear on Austin streets by the end of February. These scooters can reach speeds up to 20 mph and, like the Birds scooters and similar existing competitors, are available to rent via an app for low prices.

Although this news may feel a little like opening a door in Resident Evil only to find that the Umbrella Corporation has created a new monstrosity, the subtle shift in the scooters’ design from standing to sitting may help address one of the biggest concerns of the original infestation: user recklessness.

Perhaps because these Ojo scooters resemble an actual vehicle, riders (and drivers) may be more apt to follow traffic laws and behave responsibly. The company seems to share this attitude, calling themselves “the adult commuter scooter.”

The truth is that there are three camps of attitudes about technology marrying neato transportation: those that rent the scooters, those that hate the scooters and want to burn them to the ground, and those that are unaware of their existence because they live and work in the suburbs. Seriously, even South Park has mocked the movement in several episodes this season.

Ultimately, this movement that we enjoy laughing at points out that the public transportation systems in many cities is seriously inferior, so we can laugh at bad riders (drivers?) in ties, trying to navigate a crowded sidewalk while also eating a burrito, but we should also note that there is a reason these vehicle rentals are thriving (and it’s not because of cultural douchiness).

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Is insecurity the root of overworking in today’s workforce?

(CAREER) Why are professionals who “made it” in their field still chronically overworked? Why are people still glorifying a lack of sleep in the name of the hustle?!

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So you got that job you wanted after prepping for months, and everything seems cool and good… but you’re working way more hours than scheduled. Skipping lunch, coming in early and staying late, and picking up any project that comes your way. You’re overworked.

Getting the job was supposed to be a mark of success in itself, but now, work is your life and everyone is wondering how you can be working so much if you’re already successful.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Laura Empson delves into what drives employees to overwork themselves. Empson is a professor of Management of Professional Service firms at the University of London, and has spend the last 25 years researching business practices.

Her recently published book Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas, focuses on business organizational theory and behavior, based on 500 interviews with senior professionals in the world’s largest organizations.

Over the course of her research, Empson encountered numerous reports of people in white-collar positions pushing themselves to work exhausting hours. Decades ago, those with white-collar jobs in law firms, accountancy firms, and management consultancies worked towards senior management positions to gain partnership.

Once partnership was reached, all the hard work paid off in the form of autonomy and flexibility with scheduling and projects. Now, even entry-level employees are working overextended hours.

An HR director interviewed by Empson noted, “The rest of the firm sees the senior people working these hours and emulates them.” There’s a drive to mirror upper management, even at the cost of health.

Empson’s research indicates insecurity is the root of this behavior. Insecurity about when work is really done, how management will perceive employees, and what counts as hard work. Intangible knowledge work provokes insecurity since there’s rarely ever a way to tell when this work is complete.

Colleagues turn into competitors, and suddenly working outside of your regular hours becomes seen as normal if you want to keep up with the competition. You want to stand out from the crowd, so staying late a few days a week starts to feel normal.

This can turn into a slippery slope, and when being overworked feels like the norm, you may not notice taking on even more extra hours and responsibilities to feel like you’re contributing efficiently to the company.

During her research, Empson found that some recruiters admitted to hiring “insecure overachievers” for their firms.

Insecure overachievers are incredibly ambitious and motivated, but driven by feelings of inadequacy. Financial insecurity and disproportionately tying self-worth to productivity are just a few contributing factors to their self-doubt.

As a result, these kind of people are amazingly self-disciplined, and likely to pursue elite positions with professional organizations. Fear of being exposed as inadequate drives insecure employees to work long hours to prove themselves

Even upper level management is subject to this same insecurity.

Organizational pressures can make even the most established leader overwork themselves.

Empson notes, “Working hard can be rewarding and exhilarating. But consider how you are living. Recognize when you are driving yourself and your staff too hard, and learn how to help yourself and your colleagues to step back from the brink.“

Analyze your organization’s conscious and unconscious messaging about achievement, and make sure you’re setting and enforcing realistic expectations for your team.

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Business News

The most common buzzwords (still) used in job descriptions

(BUSINESS) Employers are trying their best to attract really high quality talent, but the buzzwords that continue to plague the process are lame, annoying, and often insulting.

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It’s that time of year again. Year-in-review lists abound and Indeed.com is no exception. The website for employers and potential employees has taken a look back at the year in job descriptions and released its list of the weirdest job titles used in online listings.

They found the usual suspects — yes, sadly rockstar and hero still make the cut — but a few other keywords skyrocketed up the charts in 2018.

Indeed recognized seven top-performing buzzwords in its research: genius, guru, hero, ninja, superhero, rockstar, and wizard. Among these Top 7, some were up over previous years, while others’ popularity seems to be fading.

Employers really loved referencing masked assassins in their descriptions this year, resulting in a 90 percent year-over-year jump for ninja, and a 140 percent increase for the term since Indeed began tracking these stats in 2015.

Wizards and heroes didn’t fare as well. Job titles containing “wizard” were down 17 percent from 2017 and use of the word “hero” was down a whopping 44 percent since last year. Superhero ended the year up over 2017 (19 percent), but is still down by 55 percent since 2015.

So which states are touting these weird (some might say annoying) titles the most? The answers aren’t too surprising. California tops the list for ninja, genius, rockstar, wizard, and guru. Texas, whose capital is Austin, aka Silicon Hills, loves using hero, superhero, guru, rockstar, and ninja. Populous states New York and Florida make the list for using several of the buzzwords — no surprise there. But a few smaller states snuck into the Top 4, including Ohio (No. 1 “superhero” user) and Utah (No. 4 on the “rockstar” and “wizard” lists).

While many companies like to use these so-called creative terms to convey a sense of a hip and cool company culture, does using these “fun” titles actually find the best candidates? According to Indeed, the answer might be “not exactly.” Job seekers aren’t necessarily searching for terms like ninja or guru, so they might not even find the job they would be the perfect fit for. And truth be told, many experienced job seekers are turned off by these weird titles and might not even apply to the job in the first place.

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