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Being seen as 'aggressive' at work can hold you back, says study: Here's how to get ahead

Self-motivation is one of the most coveted soft skills, but being seen as overly ambitious or pushy can keep you from a promotion. Here's how to balance the two to get ahead.

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Olga Reznikova via Twenty20

Self-motivation is one of the most coveted soft skills recruiters look for on resumes. But while being a go-getter is good, people perceived as "aggressive" or "selfish" are less likely to gain power in the workplace, according to a new study from the University of California Berkeley. This can be especially true for women: Men who display self-confidence in the workplace often have more influence, while self-confident women don't, according to a 2018 Harvard Business Review study.  

These double standards can lead to problems: A lot of competent women miss out on promotions and the gender wage gap can widen. White women make 79 cents for every dollar men make, and Black women make just 62 cents on the dollar, according to the Center for American Progress. Larger structural change is needed to overcome gender bias in the workplace.

Still, experts say, there are still some steps you can take to get ahead at work.  

'You can be nice and strategic'

If a company culture seems to reward those who display strength, female employees sometimes feel like the only way to get ahead is to mimic the behavior of those who are being promoted. "Women often feel, even subconsciously, pressured to adopt the ineffective tactics they may observe their male colleagues using," says Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching in Denver, Colorado.

That can backfire, though: "When they do, women are perceived as being even more fragile, untrustworthy, and unstable than are men." 

Although showing you are decisive at work can get you ahead, too many people associate strength with "hardness," she says. "In practice, 'hard,' unbending, or aggressive people are often experienced by others as having fragile egos, limited insight, poor communication skills, and rigidity that leads to poor problem-solving skills." 

There is a misconception that if you do not display strength, you will be perceived as weak, says Claire Wasserman, founder of Ladies Get Paid. "I think we're looking at it in a binary way," she says. "You're either aggressive or you're nice. Either you're a jerk or agreeable."

It's not that simple, she says: "There are so many shades between that and I think that is what is missing. You can be nice and strategic." 

Schedule one-on-one time with co-workers

Think of it as collecting data, Wasserman says. You need to know the personalities and quirks of your co-workers in order to be efficient, and you can only do that by putting in the time and chatting with them. This will also show your managers that you have an interest in your team being successful. 

"I was having a hard time working with this one woman, pre-pandemic," she says of a job before she launched Ladies Get Paid. "It was a virtual relationship and I thought it was my fault. Then we did weekly calls, then biweekly, and I understood that she felt territorial because she wasn't in the office with the rest of us." 

Women often feel, even subconsciously, pressured to adopt the ineffective tactics they may observe their male colleagues using.
Lisa Marie Bobby
Clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching

By asking for a virtual coffee date you will, at best, foster a genuine friendship. At worst, you will simply learn how to work more harmoniously with someone you might not see eye-to-eye with.

This is another false binary people often find themselves thinking, Wasserman says: You are either strategic or genuine, but not both. This is untrue, she says. "You being strategic doesn't mean you're not also authentic. ... You don't have to like everyone — but you do have to work with them." 

Ask your boss about opportunities to excel

Have consistent conversations with your boss about your desire to take on more responsibility. During the pandemic, these conversations are especially important, as hiring freezes and general economic uncertainty has affected the work environment. There may be opportunities for you to advance or to take on new duties because the company isn't in a position to hire more people right now.

If you want to see what avenues are available for you regarding a promotion, ask your boss how they are doing and where they might need help. Wasserman gives the following example as a way to ask your manager how they are doing: "I imagine this stuff is really hard for you, too. As you think about your future, how are you handling all of this online?" 

You can then turn the conversation to you and your goals: "Ask, 'How do I best work smart here?'" she says. 

Use your emotional intelligence 

"Women are often naturally higher in emotional intelligence skills than men are, and therefore better able to manage emotions, understand others, communicate effectively under stress, and find collaborative and respectful solutions," Bobby says. 

To get ahead, double down on these skills, she suggests. This will make you a more effective worker, and others are more likely to look to you as a mentor.

"By embracing the 'soft skills' of emotional intelligence, you will paradoxically be perceived as stronger, more competent, more trustworthy, and more effective," she says. "Additionally, your leadership potential will rise." 

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