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Leaders, share your power and watch your team grow

My 10th grade biology teacher was one of those rare educators that effortlessly mixed passion and knowledge into one irresistible lesson. He made up songs about how to name species, compared cells to salad, and held group exams instead of individual ones. Because of his teaching style (or maybe a budding love for science) I quickly became confident in my elementary biology knowledge. So, when I got put in a group project, as the only girl, I didn’t have any doubt that I’d participate and bring the heat. Much to my disappointment and boredom, I was immediately given the task of bubbling in our answers on a pink parscore sheet while the discussion flew on around me.

Leaning in

I haven’t thought about that biology class in years. That is, until I listened (okay, re-listened) to a TED Talk by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg. If you don’t know the lecture I’m referring to, does the title of her best-seller Lean In ring a bell? Here’s the low-down: in 2010, Sandberg raised concern about the lack of women in corporate leadership positions and encouraged women to assert themselves by “leaning in.” Her book and talk catalyzed a worldwide discussion about workplace inequality.

I also watched Sandberg’s 2013 follow-up interview with Pat Mitchell. As I was listening, one anecdote caught my attention. It was about an attending physician from Johns Hopkins University. Sandberg said that before reading Lean In, “It never really occurred to him that even though half the students in his med school classes were women, they weren't speaking as much as the men. So he started paying attention, and as he waited for raised hands, he realized the men's hands were up.” So, he started encouraging the women in the class to raise their hands, but the effort still didn’t yield an equal contribution. So he told the class, “No more hand raising, I'm cold-calling.” Sandberg shared the result of his experiment. “So he could call evenly on men and women. And what he proved to himself was that the women knew the answers just as well or better, and he was able to go back to them and tell them that,” said Sandberg.

Why did this story catch my attention? Because it shows just the crucial role leaders play in creating workplace equality. Also, it reminded me of 10th grade biology.

It never really occurred to him that even though half the students in his med school classes were women, they weren't speaking as much as the men. So he started paying attention, and as he waited for raised hands, he realized the men's hands were up.

Sit at the table

According to a study commissioned by, Only 12 percent of men share the same sentiment. When women assert themselves in negotiations, they are 30 percent more likely than men to be perceived as aggressive, intimidating, or bossy as reported by the same study.

While Sandberg encourages women to “sit at the table” to “lean in,” Huffington Post writer, Vanessa Garcia, argues that this puts women “in a position of exhaustion,” a place where they constantly get discredited and mischaracterized by a male-dominated corporate structure.

Expectations, hierarchies, and power

Communication theorist, Joseph Berger, would argue this constant undervaluation of women’s ideas is a result of the Expectation States Theory. Expectation States Theory explains why, in many contexts, certain members of a group are heard and esteemed more often than others when working on a collective task.

Berger states that we all have “status characteristics”—bias, if you will—that we judge others on. Things like age, sex, or mathematical ability. We use information about general characteristics—age, sex—to make predictions about specific characteristics, even if the ability is completely unrelated to the characteristic. For example, being female is unrelated to being a good chef. Unfortunately for me, women are not born with the innate ability to whip up gourmet meals. However, we often associate the characteristic of “female” with “cooking ability.” Societal messages tell us that women are “nurturing” and “good with children,” and thus good at household tasks, right?

According to Berger, these expectations also come into play when a group works together to solve a collective task. Say your team, a peer group for the most part, is working together to analyze current customer satisfaction and make improvements for the next quarter. Because the team is “task-oriented,” the team members’ characteristics will become means for subconsciously rank-ordering the group. Males, expected to be “logical” land at the top, and women, expected to be “emotional” sink to the bottom. Even if the women in the room scored 2400 (1600 for the old school folk) on the SAT, societal stereotypes and assumptions about the female gender will place them at the bottom. Group members expect those at the top of the hierarchy to be leaders–they are given more talking time. Then when they say something insightful it reinforces our perception of them as a leader (that’s called confirmation bias).

Those at the bottom of the hierarchy get less talking time; when they do finally have the chance to get a word in, people are more likely to think of their input as unhelpful. In this power distribution, even genius women will never get to prove themselves as capable. With this in mind, Sheryl Sandberg’s remarks about the lack of women in leadership makes perfect sense--women simply don’t have as many opportunities to prove themselves as men do in a corporate setting.

It’s up to leaders to even the playing field

Let’s look back to the physician at Johns Hopkins. It wasn’t until he called on the women in his class that their vast knowledge became apparent. As a leader at work, it goes without saying that you hold most of the power. People look up to you to make decisions and lay down the law. University of California Communication professor, Gordon Abra specializes in communicative power and theories like Expectation States. Based on the limitations set upon by institutional power in the workplace, he gives the following tips:

Acknowledge that the hierarchy exists. And that you’re at the top. And that there’s a lot of silencing happening beneath you.

Leaders, you hold the megaphone.

Give up some of your power. Empower others. Go around the table and force everyone to share their ideas for five minutes. Take a trick out of the Hopkins physician’s playbook and cold call on members of your team to voice their input, whether they think it is valid or not. If a woman, an intern, a recently back-at-work mother, or someone else in a powerless position, is going unheard or being overly criticized, speak up for them and ask others to pay attention. Both Entrepreneur and Inc. stress the importance of diminishing top-down communication structures in empowering employees. In this power-sharing model there are no bad ideas and nobody is being “bossy” by sharing their thoughts. The only way to squash this hierarchy and allow people to rise to positions that match their qualifications is to allow them to exhibit their abilities.

If that’s not enough, these confidence-bolstering practices can lead to higher engagement for the employees as well as a competitive advantage for the company. Leaders, you hold the megaphone.

Sandberg says it’s time to sit at the table. I say it better be a huge table. One with enough room for everyone in the group, class, or meeting to take a seat. Leaders, wherever you sit at the table--the head, the center, the most cushioned chair--you’re in the power seat. Encourage everyone to say something at the brainstorming session. Watch the fear in someone’s eyes transform into a little spark of excitement, of power. Ready, set, listen.

Sara Lighthall is a content marketing intern at Zendesk and a student of life. When she’s not demystifying the Millennial generation on Relate, you can find her with her toes in the sand and a latte in her hand. See what she’s up to on Twitter: @saralighthall.