By Tara O'Sullivan
A few years ago I was in a meeting, comprised of my colleagues, mostly male and a few female, all sitting around a large wooden table earnestly discussing a new marketing campaign we were planning for one of our most important products. As the discussion unfolded, I began to notice a pattern. When certain people spoke no one interrupted, yet when other—equally competent—people spoke, they were spoken over, interrupted and ignored. Guess the gender of the second group?
In a piece she wrote for Time.com, Jessica Bennet calls this “Manterrupting (n): Unnecessary interruption of a woman by a man,” and while it does apply to some men, it is a phenomenon that primarily impacts women and demonstrates how they are undervalued in the workplace.
Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton business school professor Adam Grant have researched this, and in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, they refer to it as the perils of “speaking while female,” and cite research showing that powerful male senators speak significantly more than their junior colleagues, while female senators of similar influence do not. Male executives who speak more often than their peers are deemed more competent (by 10%), while female executives who speak up are considered less (14% less). From all the data it is clear that when it comes to the workplace, women speak less, are interrupted more, and have their ideas more harshly scrutinized.
As frustrating as these results are (and they are very frustrating, apart from the fact that interrupting is just plain rude) the point is: now what? How do we move forward and address this ‘manterrupting’ to get to that place where everyone is entitled to speak freely, without fear of being cut off or unduly scrutinized?
For starters we can implement the following:
- No interrupting……anyone. Establish this rule before meetings or conference calls.
- If someone is interrupted, take it upon yourself to request that they be allowed finish.
- If someone interrupts you – keep talking. Raise your voice a little, but remain calm and continue. They will get the hint.
- If the interrupter doesn’t get the hint, or you are not comfortable raising your voice, ask them to wait their turn and state that you really want to finish what you were saying.
- Try to give as little opportunity for others to interrupt you as possible – refrain from taking long pauses, keep the momentum up, and speak with a clear, strong voice.
- Acknowledge each other’s good ideas and suggestions. If we all contribute to building one another’s reputations as colleagues to be taken seriously women who know what they’re talking about, others will notice.
- Practice establishing your voice as a confident, authoritative one. Sounds cheesy, but if you are even just a little wary of talking out, get practice. Stand in front of a mirror or video yourself and be ruthless in your criticism. People are less likely to interrupt you if you are perceived as powerful.
Granted, some of these techniques are a little harder in a telephone scenario, but you can still establish some ground rules and above all, do not acquiesce when someone interrupts you.
I believe that if we all make the effort, if we all consciously and deliberately ensure everyone is heard, we can assign ‘manterrupting’ like telephone boxes (phone booths, for my American readers) or hopefully, man buns, to the history books.
The following video from the Skillsoft leadership learning library describes how the female archetype applies to all leaders.
Tara O'Sullivan is the Women in Action Executive Sponsor and Chief Creative Officer at Skillsoft.