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Building Backbone (November 2005)

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Building Backbone

Issue # 40
November 2005

"I have always hated conflict. I know many women do. Sometimes
this works to our advantage and to society's. But as any good
storyteller will tell you, you need conflict if you want things
to change. Avoiding conflict is running in place. I am told that
there are some inside the Gore campaign who are still afraid of me.
So be it. Sometimes it is better to be feared than loved. Sometimes,
all it takes to wield power is the willingness to be yelled at and an
ample supply of Tums."

Susan Estrich [1]

"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for
myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

Rabbi Hillel [2]

On a recent group coaching call attended by women law leaders, I asked the participants about their approaches to conflict. My question was met with a chorus of groans.

One woman, a junior partner in a large firm, had recently been treated disrespectfully by a young woman associate in the same meeting where the associate had been very deferential to a male partner.

I asked the group member how she planned on handling the situation. She said she felt that the look she'd directed at the associate was sufficient.

I wondered about a private meeting. Wasn't this potentially a win-win solution? After all, the associate's behavior is not an effective success strategy - she could benefit from the feedback. And, inviting my client (as coaches do) to consider a meta-view of her professional goals, wasn't this precisely what she was working toward: greater respect and influence and the ability to increase her effectiveness as a leader? After all, just a few minutes earlier she'd complained that her efforts to be cooperative have often been taken by others as license to walk all over her.

But she'd decided feedback to the associate was best saved for her written evaluation and that the kind of conversation I was suggesting would accomplish nothing but generate a lot of negative feelings. "Besides," she added," conflict just makes you more vulnerable. If you let others see that something is important to you, you show them the chinks in your armor."

I asked if she'd choose the same course of action if she'd seen a colleague treated contemptuously. In that case she absolutely would confront the associate. The other women agreed: confrontation on behalf of others is much easier. Women are expected to put their own desires second to those of others.


Just how is a woman lawyer supposed to get ahead if she's supposed to be selfless? Women in every realm of business and professional life face this double bind. Volumes have been written about the incompatibility between our concept of what a leader should look like and how women are supposed to behave. [3] We all know what men and women are "supposed to" be like - and the potential for retaliation if they step outside of the boundaries prescribed by gender stereotypes. A woman might even be sentenced to months in the "Bully Broad" program! [4]

No wonder the word "conflict" elicits images of catastrophe in the minds of many women attorneys. As a coach, trying to "hold my client's agenda" to achieve professional success without sacrificing a personally satisfying life, I often feel that I'm on shaky ground. When I encourage my clients to advocate for themselves, the typical response is, "Obviously you don't know what it's like to work in a law firm." In order to maintain my credibility, it appears that I'm supposed to agree that the dangers of conflict for women lawyers far outweigh the potential gains.

But how many women lawyers have received offers from their firms of positions of power and influence, great work with great clients, no questions about commitment and a flexible schedule with compensation equal to their male counterparts? I just don't see how women lawyers are going to achieve equity and power without effective self-advocacy.

On he other hand, I get uncomfortable when women lawyers blame "white men with stay-at-home wives" for creating a situation intended to oppress women. Besides the stereotyping and adversarial tone of this approach, it is an example of the fundamental attribution error - the tendency to falsely attribute the negative behavior of others to their character while attributing your own negative behavior to your environment. Sure, it works up anger - but it's the anger of a helpless victim. And if you think you're avoiding conflict this way, think again. Superficial accommodation is neither assertive nor cooperative. It maintains conflict of the slow-burning-resentment variety. Furthermore, I believe that demonizing men is neither accurate nor effective.


Instead, I advocate a backbone-building approach. By backbone, I mean standing up for something you believe is important in spite of the risks; making a decision and holding the line in spite of its unpopularity, unless you are presented with compelling evidence that a change of stance is appropriate. It's being clear about what you want and why it's legitimate and being willing to ask directly for it. It's about making your voice heard in the service of an important goal; refusing to be intimidated or to be drawn into a destructive argument. It's holding others accountable for what they've agreed to do; being willing to lose a short-term skirmish in order to press for change that you believe is just. It's behaving in a way that is consonant with your values; and advocating effectively on your own behalf because you deserve as much respect as anyone else and because you know that such advocacy will advance the cause of other women who follow you.


The first step in building backbone is to get out of your own way. Many of the obstacles are internal - beliefs and assumptions about what conflict looks like and the consequences of standing up for yourself that create fear and prevent action. Undoubtedly, your concept of conflict is influenced by the context in which you work. Mary Ann Glendon [5] calls lawyers "connoisseurs of conflict." Many prominent legal theorists and jurists have expressed concerns about the lack of civility and courtesy among lawyers. A significant change in the assumptions of litigation has occurred. Historically, opposing clients were adversaries, not their lawyers. Now, under the guise of "zealous advocacy," many lawyers themselves engage in "scorched earth tactics." "Rambo litigators" have attained the status of Roman gladiators. Lani Guinier [6] has documented the negative effects of agonistic teaching methods on the success of women law students and Deborah Tannen [7] has demonstrated that "the argument culture" in law firms creates an atmosphere of animosity and a devaluation of cooperation. The definition of "conflict" within this adversarial culture is polarizing: there are winners and losers and the opponents wind up one up or one down. The "cult of objectivity" [8] creates a lack of responsibility for the human suffering caused by attackers.

Furthermore, competition, not collaboration, is the rule in most law firms. While lawyers with similar practices may come together in "teams," the compensation structure still rewards competitors. Lawyers fight for origination credit. "Minders" and "grinders" are not the status equals of "rainmakers."

Conflict is anything but a neutral word among attorneys. In fact, the dictionary definition of "conflict" is "to fight, battle, contend; to be antagonistic, incompatible, contradictory, in opposition, clash or war; sharp disagreement or opposition, as of interests or ideas." [9]


Given the negative connotations associated with conflict, it may be more useful for women lawyers to think about advocacy as its substitute. To advocate means to be in favor of, to speak or write in support of. There is no suggestion of battle, war, argument, dispute or vanquishing the opponent. Does that guarantee that you won't be perceived as an adversary if you advocate a position that is inconsistent with that of a colleague? Of course not. But perhaps it will be a more palatable platform from which to begin.

If you are not an advocate for yourself, who will be? A very dear friend of mine was recently approached by a lawyer-trained businessman to create and run a foundation. Enthusiastic about the idea, she submitted some preliminary work and was very disappointed when his response was essentially, "Never mind - I'm too busy." A male attorney friend of hers advised her that she simply needed to come back with a counter offer. "Doesn't 'no' mean 'no?' she asked. "Of course not," her friend replied. "He expects you to propose something else." Doubtful and worried about being seen as a pest, she nevertheless drafted a proposal. Her philanthropic friend loved her new idea.


Perhaps because they're used to not being in control, women tend to see the environment as unchangeable. Situations appear fixed and non-negotiable. Because of this, women often miss opportunities for negotiation. It's all too easy to forget that no decision is final until it's been accepted [10]. Of course, all overt conflict is pre-empted when you don't challenge a decision that seems to be final - but that's not the same as resolving it.

Besides accepting the non-negotiability of "no," women often assume that any kind of demand or disagreement will threaten or harm their relationship with the person with whom they disagree. This grows out of a dichotomous view in which negotiations are seen as distributive, or zero-sum -- that is, one person's gain is another's loss. Since women are socialized to be nurturers, this belief frequently results in guilt even before the request is made. This is why the women law leaders in my coaching group would advocate for others without blinking while becoming paralyzed by the thought of advocating for themselves.

Beyond evaluating the realistic likelihood that the other person will judge you as selfish, demanding or entitled if you express your request, it may be even more important to challenge the assumption that if you get what you want the other person will lose and the relationship will be irrevocably harmed. More often than not, there's a win-win way to get what you want (more about this later). And any negative emotion you might see is likely to be fleeting.

Keep in mind that others assume that because you are a woman you will not push your own interest. As a result, they tend to offer less, are more difficult to bring to the negotiating table, make unreasonable demands and say "no" more freely. No wonder car salesmen always offer women a higher price for a car than they do men. It stands to reason that a man whose experience has taught him that all he needs to do in order to get you to withdraw is to express negative emotion may seem even more upset when this strategy fails to work. That doesn't necessarily mean that his emotion is deeply felt or lasting. And don't forget to consider the possibility that you'll gain his respect for your demonstration of backbone.

Recent research indicates that a person's relative power has a strong influence on her perceptions and assumptions [11]. Power is a contextual characteristic, defined with reference to a particular relationship or group. The person or group with a greater ability to provide or withdraw resources (like compensation or training opportunities) and to administer punishment (such as harsh criticism or poor performance evaluations) is more powerful. Low power people have been found to be more attentive to threat and punishment, while high power people are quicker to detect opportunities for material and social reward. Less powerful people tend to interpret ambiguous events as more threatening, underestimate how well their supervisors like them, overestimate how angry their supervisors are during an interaction, and inhibit their own behavior, making their actions contingent upon the acts of others [12].

Of course women typically have less power in legal workplaces. But the fact that this leads them to overestimate the threat and misperceive their supervisors' feelings toward them should give you pause.


When you find yourself imagining that advocating for your interests will be catastrophic, ask yourself how likely this outcome really is. Human beings have a tendency to overvalue what they expect. But just because it might happen doesn't mean it's highly probable. As a second step, imagine the best possible scenario and estimate the probability of its occurrence. Finally, having entertained both extremes, consider the most likely outcome. It's usually something far more manageable and you can plan how you'll deal with it if it occurs.

In my experience, many women attorneys begin with the assumption that their male supervisors and colleagues are their adversaries. When frustrated by the behavior of a male attorney, they begin to attribute negative motives to him. The angry outburst of a male partner is construed as not just insensitive but as intended to intimidate. Given this conclusion, why would you bother to advocate for greater respect?

Since I also coach senior male partners, I'm privy to a view that these men don't tend to share with their female colleagues. Often the partner who comes across as so harsh is unaware of how others experience him. Frequently he himself feels besieged and his behavior is primarily a reflection of his own anxiety and stress. Certainly his behavior is still insensitive and probably hurtful -- but that's distinctly different from mean spirited.

Remember, too, that subtle discrimination based on gender stereotypes is not typically conscious -- and women tend to buy into stereotype-based assumptions as much as men do. I'm not condoning biased beliefs or behavior. But it is useful to consider that most people view their own behavior as reasonable. The male attorneys I coach are usually chagrinned when I point out the gender assumptions that appear to underlie their reactions.


When you assume the worst about the motives of another person, you make it far more difficult to get what you want. Assuming another person is your adversary, especially when that person is a man and therefore more powerful, will only make you feel more powerless and convinced that nothing you do or say will make any difference. In addition, attributing negative motivations typically increases your anger, and negative emotions narrow your creativity and sense of what is possible [13].

When you treat someone as untrustworthy, adversarial and inflexible you're likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your goal is to persuade the other person to meet your request for resources or change, not to come across as aggrieved.


Self-confidence is essential for effective self-advocacy. Tell yourself that your desires are legitimate and that you have the right and the ability to push for them. After all, you are a trained advocate! Remind yourself that you don't have to take whatever is offered. If you're unable to resolve your differences during the first attempt, keep in mind you can return to the issue another time. Don't conclude that you've lost just because it's time for a breather. And if all else fails, act as if you feel confident. Muscles get stronger by flexing them; by asserting more power you'll gain power.


The biggest cognitive obstacle to self-advocacy that I've run into as a coach is the belief that you are trapped and have no options. If you want to have bargaining power, you must be willing and able to walk away. Don't confuse your job with your career. It's easier to find another job than to recover your sense of self and self-respect.

It's unrealistic to expect to feel entirely comfortable regardless of how certain you are of the reasonableness of your request. Self-advocacy, conflict, disagreement and negotiation all involve pushing and being pushed out of your comfort zone. Don't let your anxiety deter you. The more optimistic you are, the more likely you are to project confidence and persist.


Women can achieve their goals without getting involved in angry, unproductive conflict. Your ability to influence another person will depend upon your understanding of what is important to him, the quality of your relationship, the value of the resources you bring to the table, your ability to make the case, and your facility in demonstrating that agreement will be mutually beneficial.

In order to be an effective self-advocate you need to take responsibility for your career and for your relationships with powerful others. You are far more likely to be successful in pursuing your goals within the context of a trusting relationship. The greater the degree of trust you've established in a relationship the less you'll be required to prove your case. Similarly, developing a relationship of shared goals and comfortable and effective communication reduces the likelihood of misunderstanding and makes reaching a favorable agreement quicker and easier.


Remember that individuals have power to the extent to which they control resources and punishments. Reducing your dependency on others by independently obtaining resources increases your relative power. Having alternatives increases your leverage. Be aware of your strengths and the value you bring. The currencies you have to exchange for what you're requesting include whatever is valuable to the person on the other side. In addition to your technical expertise, these may include the opportunity to make contacts, your willingness to take ownership of work, your responsiveness, or behind the scenes support. You'll turn your opponent into your ally by reminding him that the effect of granting your request will make it easier to accomplish shared goals.


Most of all, the ability to listen, to be attuned to what's being said and what's being communicated nonverbally, will empower your self-advocacy. Your skill at reading your "opponent" is critical to your success. There's information to be gained from everything he does, especially his resistance to your influence.


There's no way around the fact that women simply have to work harder to be effective at getting what they want and deserve. While men can be highly influential simply by asserting their authority, women seem to need to accompany such assertiveness with an equal dose of sociability. [14]

One group of researchers [15] found that women are particularly effective in negotiating when told beforehand that because of their gender they are expected to do poorly. You may feel more empowered if you remind yourself that your "opponent" underestimates your ability because you're a woman.


Deborah Kolb [16] points out the often-overlooked "shadow negotiation" that frequently co-occurs when women and men negotiate. The shadow negotiation refers to the fact that at the same time the parties are negotiating the terms of the agreement, they are also negotiating the terms of the relationship, albeit in a below-the-surface manner. It is in the realm of competition for control of the terms of the discussion that women run into greatest difficulty. Typical "moves" include challenging your expertise, devaluing your competence, demeaning your ideas, criticizing your style and making threats. All of these techniques serve to knock you off balance and undermine your confidence. Reminding yourself of your value and the legitimacy of your position can help you regain your stability and credibility.


Your ability to demonstrate backbone without inviting demeaning labels is largely determined by your own emotional self-control. You can't avoid feeling provoked. However, you can avoid responding impulsively. It's also essential not to berate yourself for being "too thin-skinned" when you're insulted to the point of tears. To do that is to honor insensitivity and aggressiveness.


Remember that you can't control the outcome - you can only control your own behavior. So, even if you don't get the agreement you were seeking on a given occasion, the fact that you advocated for yourself and showed your backbone and your humanity is sufficient to call it a "win."


  1. Estrich, S. (2001) Sex & Power. New York: Riverhead Books, p. 241.
  2. Rabbi Hillel. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, a tractate of the Mishnah, an early written compilation of Jewish oral tradition.)
  3. See, for example, Eagly, A. H. & Karav, S. J. (2002) Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109 (3), 573-598; Rhode, D. L. (Ed.) (2003) The Difference "Difference" Makes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; Rudman, L. A. & Fairchild, K. (2004) Reactions to counterstereotypic behavior: The role of backlash in cultural stereotype maintenance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87 (2), 157-176.
  4. Holland, J. (2002) Same Game Different Rules: How to Get Ahead Without Being a Bully Broad, Ice Queen, or "Ms. Understood." New York: McGraw Hill.
  5. Glendon, M. A. (1994) A Nation Under Lawyers: How the Crisis in the Legal Profession is Transforming American Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 40.
  6. Guinier, L., Fine, M. & Ballin, J. (1997) Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law School, and Institutional Change. Boston: Beacon Press.
  7. Tannen, D. (1998) The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words. New York: Ballantine Books.
  8. Ibid., p. 81.
  9. Webster's New World College Dictionary (2001), Fourth Edition.
  10. Kolb, D. M & Williams, J. (2000). The Shadow Negotiation: How Women Can Master the Hidden Agendas That Determine Bargaining Success. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  11. Anderson, C. & Berdahl, J. L. (2002) The experience of power: Examining the effects of power on approach and inhibition tendencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (6), 1362-1377.
  12. Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H. & Anderson, C. (2003) Power, approach and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110 (2), 265-284.
  13. Frederickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.
  14. Kray, L. J., Thompson, L. & Galinsky, A. (2001). Battle of the sexes: Gender stereotype confirmation and reactance in negotiation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80 (6), 942-958.
  15. Carli, L., LaFleur, S. J. & Loeber, C. C. (1995). Nonverbal behavior, gender and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68 (6), 1030-1041.
  16. Kolb, D. M. & Williams, J. (2000). op.cit.

A version of "Building Backbone" is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of "The Complete Lawyer."

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