Smashing the Patriarchy, One Comment at a Time

While co-leading a one-day version of Women Writing to Change the World, I made an observation and a leadership faux pas that I hope will provide insight for anyone leading staff, employees, boards or families.

Early on in the workshop, when it came time for the women to share what they had written, many prefaced their readings with a loaded disclaimer: that their writing couldn’t hold a candle to that of the previous reader.

We’ve all probably uttered this type of seemingly harmless backhanded compliment at one time or another: That’s an impossible act to follow; I can’t believe I have to share mine after that!, etc. However, in this workshop, I didn’t want to ignore or support this kind of competition, because a) it’s self-deprecating; b) it leaves the prior reader feeling uneasy about their accomplishment and c) in keeping with the theme of the workshop – it’s nearly impossible to find the courage to change the world when you’re defaulting to comparison mode. So I explained the patriarchal root of this type of self-demeaning, creative competition which keeps us disconnected from each other. I suggested that, in the spirit of true creativity and moving forward, we all stop using these types of disclaimers.

But my effort to set clear guidelines backfired. In fact, the comparative down-playing among participants seemed to increase. I was beginning to think my intervention was all in my head until late in the day, when one participant responded to another’s I can’t believe I have to follow her! by saying, “Um, we’re not supposed to do that.”

So I had said it aloud! But what happened? I was reminded that when a correction is involved, simply telling people what not to do generally doesn’t work (another patriarchal default). My prescriptive intervention was likely experienced as controlling, which would make anyone want to react as though they hadn’t heard it, or simply do the opposite.

More importantly, this group of women were supremely talented, and comparison was inevitable. By being didactic and creating a boundary, I neglected to address the underlying purpose of the behavior, which was helping people to manage the vulnerability and discomfort of sharing spontaneous work.

What could have worked? Inviting readers to consider the impact of self-deprecating remarks on their creativity and on others, and opening up a dialogue about the behavior instead of the slightly shaming declaration that we stop it. Curiosity, and a playful tone, with questions such as: What’s it like when you’ve read, and then people say they don’t want to read after you? What is the impact of putting your own work down? might have led to the discovery of new ways of managing emotional risk.

It’s a leadership lesson I often point out to my clients:

Hold people accountable for their behavior through constructive inquiry; not by criticizing Click To Tweet

Hold people accountable for their behavior through constructive inquiry; not by criticizing and telling them what to do.

How do you hold people accountable for their behavior? What works about it? What needs tweaking? Of course, if you are guilty of this behavior and it hasn’t been working, extend to yourself the same curiosity you would to them. Be gentle with yourself in learning a new way to work with accountability.

12 responses to “Smashing the Patriarchy, One Comment at a Time”

  1. Val Crocco says:

    Wow, your ability to self reflect is what makes you such a treasure Blair. I know that your responses always come from a place of compassion and I honestly admire your bravery and ability to say, hey maybe I screwed that one up. We all do and it’s the stepping up and trying to do better that makes us all glorious❤️

  2. Jacquie Wolf says:

    Great lesson Blair, both with the switch from “shaming” to dialogue and with you being accountable for your presentation😊

  3. Dig this! Through inquiry, you get to all the goodies, all the stories and beliefs, underneath the behavior. Where does that come from? Why do we think that by doubting and demeaning ourselves we’re complimenting others?

    I know that impulse to correct, to tell someone “stop it!” when I hear/see them do something that I believe isn’t serving them. Or anyone else. It pops up out of my heart and into my mouth and comes tumbling out with a playful-yet-stern voice.

    Usually because what they are saying makes me uncomfortable in some way. It rubs up against my own nonsense.

    I, too, want to remember to instead get curious. Ask questions. What’s that about? Where is that coming from?

    The other thing that arises for me in reading this is… if you’re going to tell someone No, you need to give them a compelling reason why it’s a No, and suggest an alternative with a compelling reason why that alternative is a better choice. Kind of like shopping with a girlfriend who keeps trying on dresses that don’t do her any favors. Instead of saying, Yuck! you go find her a dress that makes her look like a million bucks. So she can see for herself.

  4. Love how you linked the story from your newsletter to the blog post! Thank you for sharing this story…great point about fostering discovery and letting go.

  5. Ric says:

    Often, just by pointing out that the person had let loose one of those self-depreciation habits is enough, and they go home and reflect on it; and the next year, they’ve gone and changed. You might even hear about it five years later. I might say, “wow, it’s interesting that you just did that – how about starting again and just express gratitude for the previous speaker.” It could be a fun game, in the same way in improv you’re not to say “no,” but “yes, and…”

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