Is there strength in sounding ‘weak’?

Organizational psychologist Dr. Adam Grant argues yes. In a controversial New York Times column that’s sparking passionate conversations on LinkedIn, Grant writes what’s considered stereotypically “female” language — hedging, disclaimers and tag questions — is, in fact, a savvy and compelling communication strategy, whether it’s employed consciously or not. “It’s a way to convey interpersonal sensitivity — interest in other people’s perspectives — and that’s why it’s powerful,” says Grant.

  • One experiment cited in the Times found managers were more likely to support a raise for women who requested it in a hesitant way (i.e., “I don’t know how typical it is for people at my level to negotiate”). The language men used did not impact their chances of success.


By Emma W. Thorne, Editor at LinkedIn News

“The solution to this problem isn’t to urge meek men to become arrogant. It’s to normalize “weak language” as a strong way to express concern and humility. If we do that, we won’t have to keep encouraging women to communicate more forcefully.”

As a communication coach to me, this promotes a passive-aggressive culture regardless of gender. Direct and honest communication (and getting to the point) are where I see results with clients. Not in “hedging” or “weak language” regardless of gender.

I think the Barbie movie pretty much summed this up:

“It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.

You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.

But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.

It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out, in fact, that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”

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Opinion | Women Know Exactly What They’re Doing When They Use ‘Weak Language’
I couldn’t agree more Adam Grant–it’s frustrating that we are still talking about penalizing women for speaking their minds in 2023. Yet the research continues to demonstrate that this is an all too common experience for women at work. Unfortunately, we still find that this translates into messaging that women need to change their leadership style instead of men learning from what women have long understood–that personal, professional and intellectual humility can be more powerful and influential in today’s workplace.

Brad Johnson, Lisen Stromberg (She/Her) and I recently discussed the research and merits of this in an Harvard Business Review piece. It seems that there is a growing segment of business executives who have learned to lead with humility, authenticity, and an inclusive approach to business. I encourage everyone to read Lisen’s upcoming co-authored book, Intentional Power (Oct 2023), that focuses on this new leadership approach and why it is the future of business leadership.

It’s unfortunate that this language/leadership style is often labeled “weak” language–much as people skills are labeled “soft skills”–as I think it misses the mark on the power and influence of this language and skillset. But maybe I’m missing something… Thanks for the insightful and engaging The New York Times article.

By: David Smith


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