21 Jan Accelerate: Stand Out from the Crowd
Women, in particular women of color, can struggle to be heard and heeded. Here are some actionable tips to help you persuade and influence.
By Sheryl Nance-Nash
Imagine waving a magic wand and getting coworkers to do exactly what you want them to do. Or finding out that your supervisor has green-lighted the plan you put together.
No doubt in real life the script reads a bit differently. Yet for women of color, and indeed all women, the ability to persuade and influence in the workplace can be more than just a fantasy.
Even women who have reached the pinnacle of their profession can struggle with being heard and listened to. Bias and discrimination are not relics of the past. Then, too, you might be your worst enemy, believing you’re not worthy or talented. There can be all sorts of roadblocks. How do you get seen, be heard, persuade, and influence when you’re a woman of color? That’s a question you need answers to.
Experts and workplace warriors are weighing in with success strategies. “The key to influence and persuasion is to take what you are looking for out of the equation and refocus on understanding the perspective of the people you want to influence,” says Felicia Ann Rose Enuha, executive producer and host of the , a career-management podcast for Black women. “Most of us are in our own heads, but when we refocus on understanding and context, then we are genuinely able to craft win-win situations. The win-win is at the core of influencing people and entire organizations.”
A 2012 study by Brigham Young University and Princeton found that men took up 75 percent of the conversation during professional meetings. A 2020 survey by Catalyst found that 45 percent of women leaders said it was difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings and that one in five felt ignored or overlooked by colleagues during video calls. While men can hog the mic, there’s more to the story. Some women may have imposter syndrome and lack confidence to speak up during meetings. They’re
afraid of being wrong or they’ve convinced themselves they’re too loud, don’t have good ideas, or any other number of myths that society has drilled into their heads consciously and subconsciously. It can be worse still if you’re a woman of color. Biases and prejudices permeate workplace culture. A confident Black woman is threatening to some who, clinging to the stereotype of the “angry Black woman,” want to dismiss her as hostile.
Researchers at Harvard Business Review found that “not all people are treated the same when it comes to expressing anger in the workplace, and people react more negatively to Black women who express anger because they activate the stereotype of an angry Black woman.” There is, however, little evidence that Black women are angrier than white women.
One path to learning how to persuade is through executive coaching. Sandra Quince, —a coalition of business leaders working to address the corporate leadership gender gap as part of Bank of America’s Leader on Loan Program—says she is known as an “executor.” That ability is part of what made her successful, but recently, after completing six months of executive coaching, she’s made some adjustments. “Often when you execute, it can be negative—maybe you’re not ‘personable’ or you move too fast. I learned you have to balance how you execute,” says Quince, who is Black and a senior vice president in the global diversity and inclusion organization of Bank of America.
Peeling back the layers during coaching leads to self-discovery. “I don’t have to be an executor in every situation,”says Quince. “I don’t have to dominate.”
Having a coach was “life changing.” She developed confidence, and having a sounding board was invaluable. “I could ask if I was thinking about things in the right way; was I asking the right questions based on what I wanted to achieve? I learned to be vulnerable, which wasn’t something that I was always able to do before,” says Quince. She shared goals with her team that she had never voiced. Communication improved. “I feel different and am making better decisions.” Her team has noticed the change, and she likes the results. “I am a better influencer.”
But not everyone can work with an executive coach. No worries. Many people are here to help—why else are there more than 60 books on persuasion on Goodreads?
Fortunately, you can shift the dynamic on your own. To get started, Lakeya Cherry—DSW, MSSW, ACC and executive leadership coach at Evolution, a coaching, culture, and leadership development firm—offers an overall plan. Prioritize building connections across all levels of the organization; take every opportunity to be visible, and make your value to the organization clear. Be ready to do the work.
Assess the environment and consider the dynamics at play
What have you observed when others attempt to be persuasive or influential? How are you currently perceived? Are you seen as an expert? Why would others see you as credible? Why does your perspective matter on a particular issue? What relationships have you built within the workplace to impel others to trust what you have to say? Answering these questions are helpful in making you aware of obstacles you may be up against as well as alerting you to resources, information, or people you can use to support your case.
Once you’ve made your assessment and decide to move forward, consider what you want, what others want, and how you can find middle ground. How can you effectively make a case so there is buy-in on each side? What supporting data or information do you have? What additional information do you need?
Get a second opinion
You’ve done your research. What next? Pitch it to an ally or sponsor in the workplace. Seek that person’s honest perspective and determine whether your case needs more work. Also see if your ally is willing to back you, should you make an ask and need additional support.
When you’ve perfected your pitch, make the ask or speak up or say what you have to say—work to influence, says Cherry. Show up as your authentic self, be vulnerable, courageous. Be open to listening and hearing the other side, and to understanding where they are coming from. Ask questions. Seek the middle ground.
Express thanks and wait. Follow up via email with additional information to support your case. Perhaps even ask your in-house sponsor to further vouch for you if that feels appropriate.
Avoid costly missteps
For sure, there are ways to trip up in this process. One thing to navigate is being perceived as pushy. Listen more than you talk. Lisa Brooks-Greaux, EdD, is the author of Don’t Abdicate the Throne: Why and How Women Should Find Their Power, Crash Their Own Party, and Take Control of Their Lives. She says women of color have the burden of managing the tension between race and gender, as well as the perceptions, such as “angry Black woman,” associated with both.
“Having a self-awareness, specifically knowing how you ‘land on people’ and how others experience you, is critical for success,” Brooks-Greaux says. “If you pay attention to how others react when you are speaking or presenting, you will be able to discern if they agree or are interested.”
Be mindful of vocal tone and body language because they can send an unintended message, she says. Know when to back off, specifically when the other party appears uninterested or unengaged in the conversation.
Yes, you want to come prepared with confidence as well as with data to support your thinking, but persuasion is about balance. “Don’t be a know-it-all. Be a learn-it-all,” says Kerry Mitchell Brown, an equity strategist, cultural architect, and founder of , a consulting firm. The last thing you want is to lose your cool. “Don’t let passion and frustration get in the way. Stand in your power in a way that centers you but moves forward the agenda.”
Tales from the trenches
For Charise Conanan Johnson, co-CEO of and head of the firm’s advisory practice, the journey has been about getting around her fears of trying to influence and persuade. “We have to believe that our ideas and our perspectives are worthy, that they have the power to persuade and inform,” she says. “A big part of that is putting them out there, asking for what you want out loud.”
Johnson got over her fears by leaning on her faith. “If there’s a situation where I’m unsure or I fear what the response might be, I pray on it, write it down—journaling; I draw it out, and ultimately think to myself, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen as the result of expressing my opinion, my perspective?’” She turns to her husband, trusted advisors, and mentors for second opinions on what to say, asking what they would do.
She’s grateful for her close-knit circle. “Having them in my corner makes the risk of rejection or fear of failure a lot smaller,” she says. “It also helps to build confidence, and you bring that confidence into the moment of power and persuasion. You learn from those situations and adjust along the way. Over time, it becomes natural, and you begin to build that muscle.”
Kill them with kindness. That’s Samantha Liberal’s strategy. “Break the barriers of being the ‘angry Black woman’ by being friendly. It’s the ultimate strategy for impacting others. Many of us have not fully mastered the soft skills it takes to disarm our teams enough to avoid pushing them and causing them to go against the grain. Because many WOC have fought so hard for their positions, we feel as though we have to emphasize that we’re the ‘boss’ instead of using the strategy of ‘befriending,’” says Liberal, owner of the , a workplace consultancy. “It’s my experience in walking through corporate and business doors that my smile and friendly aura are what landed me positions, promotions, and professional friendships that impact me today.”
Lastly, says Lakeya Cherry, “don’t give up. Influencing is a skill that takes practice. Being a double minority in the workplace requires additional finessing skills, but with intention and strategy, you can become a persuasive, influential force.” DW
Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, business, travel, and lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in Money, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Newsday, among others.