According to a Deloitte study on Women and Power in Business, authority is more than just the natural by-product of a job title – it means being somebody who is competent, somebody people trust, somebody credible. Authority means being heard; it’s an acknowledgement of status and confers respect for your decisions.
However, the relationship between women and authority is a complex one. Research indicates that although there are differences in female and male leadership styles, there is also significant overlap — but a disconnect between leadership stereotypes and gender stereotypes creates unique challenges for women.
The assertiveness double-bind, for example, where authoritative behaviour in women is perceived as aggressive is one of the most prevalent; research has shown that successful professional women receive ‘negative personality criticism’ such as being called bossy in around 75% of performance reviews.
For Mary Ann Sieghart author of The Authority Gap, it is a measure of how much more seriously we take men than we take women. ‘We tend to assume that a man knows what he's talking about until he proves otherwise. Whereas for women it's all too often, the other way around…as a result they have to prove their competence more and we often feel uncomfortable when they're in positions of authority.’
Getting past the idea that being authoritative is to be aggressive is the first step, and stepping into our own confidence and competence. A good leader commands respect not because they are in a position of authority, but because of their professional and interpersonal skills — and research shows that emotional intelligence is increasingly being recognised as the most impactful determinant on effective – authoritative — leadership. A recent study by Norwich University compared outstanding managers with average managers and found that 90 per cent of difference in performance could be attributed to emotional intelligence attributes such as communication, self-awareness and empathy.
So how can you increase your credibility and authority to match the requirements of a situation? We look at six areas in which you might want to boost your authority with others — and some powerful ways to do it…
With a leader…
When communicating with a leader or line manager you’re already looking through the lens of an established hierarchy – but while they might have external authority, remember that they don’t have all the specialisms or answers. To establish authority within this dynamic, it’s important to own your strengths and your part in any work that you’re discussing. To even the playing field, meet them in a neutral place, rather than their office, for important discussions. Eye contact is also important, particularly for women; if you’ve got a tall boss then sit down when you talk so you are on the same level. Finally, ‘Risk the pause’ with those whose ‘status’ is higher than yours, suggests 4D Human Being founder and CEO Philippa Waller. ‘The pause is an important tool for gravitas and authority. It says, ‘I’m not nervous and don’t have to hurry so I don’t waste your time, or fill the space with qualifiers, apologies or self-deprecation’. It also says ‘I’m comfortable with difficult messages’.’
In your team
Authority as a team leader requires both being available and setting boundaries. To clearly communicate the non-negotiables in the team and how it operates is a fundamental way of establishing your position. This is even more powerful if you solicit input from the team rather than being ‘a dictator’ — respect for others and good listening skills create authority generally, so dial up your emotional intelligence. Leading a team also often requires balancing friendly relationships with the need to assert your authority at certain points. If you need to change mode to underscore hierarchy then start by physically positioning yourself differently. If you usually chat while sat around a table, for example, change to a meeting format where you’re standing at the front to indicate that you are the point from which information is coming now — and ask team members to take notes on what you are talking about to help underline this dynamic.
With a new group of peers
Establishing authority in a new group of peers starts with reframing yourself, says Philippa Waller. ‘You’re hosting them in your world as much as they are hosting you in theirs. So, take yourself out of the role of being ‘the new person’ which rests on that primal question of ‘will they accept me?’, and balance that with ‘I wonder if I will like them?’ and ‘I’m excited to bring some of my strengths to this dynamic’.’ Seeing the interaction as an information gathering exercise as opposed to a space where you need to impress them can also be powerful — says Philippa; ‘See who picks up on the different things you’re saying. This can give you valuable information about your colleagues — and it will also take your focus off of your own insecurities and allow you to project an air of genuine confidence and curiosity while talking to them.’
‘Confidence and charisma are when the body, breath and voice are all doing what you want them to do,’ says actor and public speaking coach Jessica Reagan. For her, authority — and its corollary, confidence — all start with the breath. ‘Slowing down breathing slows down the rate at which you speak, as well as lowering cortisol.’ She suggests counting to five before you begin any public speaking and taking a moment of grace to steady yourself — which builds anticipation in your audience too. ‘Speak slowly enough that it feels a bit uncomfortable — that’s probably just the right speed. And at the end of each point, take three beats before you begin again. That gives people a chance to receive what you've just told them and connect with it. If we rush what we’re saying people switch off. We think that we're saving time, but actually we’re sending a message that what we're saying is disposable.’
Establishing authority online in video-conference meetings means clearly establishing that you are the facilitator. Spotlighting yourself or putting everyone on mute while you are talking can all help to establish that you are ‘the host’. Or even think about using webinar tech which has one-way communication that can underscore this status. Creating authority online also has powerful potential to create inclusion. Almost half (45%) of US women business leaders surveyed in June 2021 said they felt it was difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings. As the ‘host’ you can demonstrate authority by breaking the patterns of the people that are usually heard, limiting the time that dominant voices talk, appreciating someone who perhaps doesn’t speak much usually and setting rules at the beginning that include everyone and set the parameters such as ‘I’m going to be coming to you all during the meeting to ask your thoughts’.
In a disagreement
If you're upset then focus on the situation, not the person involved — there is no quicker way to lose authority than to raise your voice or get personal, regardless of the content of the disagreement. Instead, move into what is known as ‘healthy ego mode’ — a state that involves ‘active listening’. Getting curious about the other person’s position is a more naturally authoritative way of moving through a potentially difficult situation than attacking or defending. Finding one thing you can both agree with will help them feel heard and is key to moving the discussion forward — as is setting out your expectations; ‘I am hoping this conversation is going to lead us to alignment on what we’re going to do next’. If you have set a non-negotiable line though, and they continue to argue, then think about adopting the ‘broken record’ approach, repeating your boundary as many times as you need to in order to cauterise the argument and underline that this is the issue and this is where it stops.