How This CMO Deals With Aggressive People at Work

April 14, 2017, 12:00 AM UTC
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The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “How can women be taken seriously in a room full of men?” is written by Jen Grant, chief marketing officer of Looker.

There comes a point in your development as a female leader—especially in technology companies—where you begin to see fewer and fewer women in the room. And then there comes that moment when you’re the only one, and you look left, look right, and think, “Oh. Interesting.”

It would be wonderful to say that this doesn’t matter. But the fact is that many tech companies are dominated by a peculiar beast—the HiPPO, or the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. This HiPPO can come from a founder, CEO, or just the most aggressive personality in the room. But it nearly always comes from a man, and they usually don’t respond positively when the one female on the team speaks frankly.

When I was young, in the presence of the HiPPO’s statement, I would feel my anxiety level go up and I wouldn’t be able to help blurting out, “That doesn’t make sense!” Of course, as I matured in my leadership role, I learned quickly that getting frustrated or being blunt is a terrible way to get your point across. Worse, you won’t be taken seriously. Once when I was having what I thought was a legitimate debate with a CEO about a strategic issue, the HiPPO in the room hollered out, “ You two should just get a room.”

Talk about being taken seriously. You can’t lose your cool with a HiPPO in the room—especially if you’re a woman. So what do you do?

Find the nugget of agreement

HiPPOs will often issue strong black-and-white statements to make a point, such as “We never try anything new or innovative” or “This presentation is crap.” While these proclamations are often brusque, they often contain important truths.

Instead of getting defensive when hearing these statements, ask the HiPPO to tell you more. You’ll find that it was probably one small thing that set them off—something you can easily agree with. In one instance, I quickly deflated a HiPPO’s frustration by pointing out what they were specifically upset about: wanting to see more photographs and less color in the presentation in front of them.

Asking for more information has two interesting effects. First, HiPPOs often will lower their volume, speak with less emphasis, and calm down. They are now being listened to and so they are appeased. Second, they will begin to see you as a partner, not an adversary.

Once you find that point of agreement, it’s time to turn the conversation to you.

Focus on actual data

Slowly, while referencing that nugget of agreement, bring data into the conversation. Can you pull a chart that could show whether what they are saying is true or false? Or share some research that your team has done indicating a different direction that—of course—addresses that nugget you both agree on? And if you don’t have the data in the moment, say they you’re going to go do some research and get back to them. Ask the HiPPO what information would be useful to them in supporting their decision. Include them in the questions and they will better appreciate and accept the answers.

Any team can end up dominated by an aggressive personality—that’s just the corporate culture, built up over decades of not having access to data. Undoing that isn’t as simple as saying to women leaders, “Feel free to speak up.” The most successful companies need to give everyone the data and tools they need to make their arguments without having to engage in a shouting match. If every disagreement ends up that way, some of your best people will leave to find companies with cultures that don’t encourage this behavior.

Without data, the HiPPOs will run wild, which isn’t good for their teams or the companies they lead.

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