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Why Girls Get Called Bossy, and How to Avoid It

There's a way to take charge that doesn't cause a backlash.

Many girls want to lead, only to be discouraged by criticism for taking the reins. By launching a campaign to ban the word “bossy,” Sheryl Sandberg planted important seeds for many more women to become leaders. But for these seeds to blossom, the rest of us need to understand the behaviors that lead people to brand girls as bossy.

As my daughters learned when we read the classic Little Miss Bossy book by Roger Hargreaves, girls can get pegged as bossy when they order people around. Yet we don’t label every girl who issues commands or exercises authority as bossy. To make sense of bossiness, we need to tease apart two fundamental aspects of social hierarchy that are often lumped together—power and status:

  • Power lies in holding a formal position of authority or controlling important resources.
  • Status involves being respected or admired.

We react very differently when power is exercised by high-status and low-status people. In a pair of clever experiments, researchers Alison Fragale, Jennifer Overbeck, and Maggie Neale show that when people with high status also possess power, we perceive them as dominant, but also warm. We hold them in high regard, so we’re willing to follow their commands. When the same commands come from people who lack status, we judge them as dominant and cold. Since they haven’t earned our respect, we feel, they don’t have the right to tell us what to do.

When young women get called bossy, it’s often because they’re trying to exercise power without status. It’s not a problem that they’re being dominant; the backlash arises because they’re "overstepping" their perceived status.

If we want girls to receive positive reinforcement for early acts of leadership, let’s discourage bossy behavior along with banning the bossy label. That means teaching girls to engage in behaviors that earn admiration before they assert their authority.

What are those behaviors? After decades of research, we know that there are two paths to earning status—competence and caring. We look up to people who are capable and concerned about others. We follow people once they’ve demonstrated that they have unique skills and will use them for the benefit of the group.

These principles apply to all genders: In Give and Take, I cover extensive evidence that the men and women who gain the most status are those who are giving and generous. By helping others, sharing credit, and showing an interest in others’ opinions, men and women alike gain respect. Teammates end up rooting for them, instead of gunning for them.

Today, due to stereotypes that still haven’t evaporated, girls do seem to get penalized more than boys for exercising power. This is patently unfair, and to course-correct, Sandberg is fond of sharing a provocative and amusing recommendation from CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell:

“Next time you hear a girl called bossy, take a deep breath and say, ‘That girl’s not bossy. She has executive leadership skills.’”

I love this reframe, and I want to make sure it gets applied to the right actions, because some “bossy” behaviors will fail the test of executive leadership skills. Great leaders begin by earning status through their contributions, and then assert their authority.

This pattern is exemplified in Sandberg’s own trajectory: When she gave her now-famous TED talk and published Lean In, she became an authoritative face of the women’s leadership movement. It is telling that she embraced this leadership role after she had proven her competence and contributions as a woman in leadership. On the basis of her extraordinary achievements as chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, a VP at Google, and the COO of Facebook, she gained the admiration of a wide audience eager to listen and follow her lead.

Let’s teach girls—and boys—to follow Sandberg’s example: By demonstrating competence and concern for others, they’ll earn the esteem to step up into positions of power. Then, when they lean in, others will be cheering them on.

Adam Grant is a Wharton professor and the author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, a New York Times bestseller. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamMGrant and sign up for his free newsletter.

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