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Too Few (likable) Women at the Top

Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.  If you haven’t heard about her new book, Lean In, you’re missing out.  Her fifteen minute TED talk gives a recap.  At 7 minutes 30 seconds in she cites a Harvard Business School case study, which you can listen to her describe, or read my summary below the video.

The summary: The professor running the case distributed nearly identical text to two groups of students.  One group was led to believe the protagonist of the case was a man; the other, a woman.  Both groups agreed the protagonist was competent, but men and women of the first student group wanted to hang out with the male protagonist, whereas men and women of the second student group weren’t sure they’d want to work for the female protagonist.  To sum it all up, in Sandberg’s words, “Success and likability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women.”

See the full talk and comments here.  (If you’re interested, you should watch the full talk.)

Or buy her book.


Today I was at a management meeting to solve some specific problems, and at the end of the meeting, as often happens, we allowed for some off-topic suggestions and comments.  (People should have a chance to say what’s on their mind.)  One of the managers recommended that we devote some time during our “all hands” meeting to let attendees get up to a microphone and share something that they’ve learned recently, maybe just for a minute, just quickly, and then they’d sit back down.  Call it a “Member Minute.”  I thought that was a great idea.  I’m often coming across random tidbits that I’d like to share with folks, and I think I could contribute something in less than a minute to the general audience.

Another manager also liked the idea, and they supported it by saying so and then launching into their latest gripe.  They said that there was a “major problem” negatively affecting them, and “get this” there was no solution yet, and they wanted everyone else in the business to know about it.  Fortunately the manager who suggested the “Member Minute” thanked the griper for their support and then emphasized their vision for the sharing of positive messages.


As problem fixers, we often want to focus on the problem, and among a friendly audience, sometimes we want to vent a little.  There can be a place for venting to a group, and there absolutely is a need to talk about problems.  But negativity is ultimately an organization killer: no one wants to hang around a sourpuss, and not only that, even if people don’t shut down or leave, your group’s ability to perform towards a positive outcome will be greatly diminished.

Ever been in the grocery store looking for something?  Ever notice how much faster you can find it if you think about what you’re looking for, if you envision its color or its shape or a word on the box?  And if they change the branding, notice how you can’t find it?  The same can be said about your work.  Envision a positive outcome and all your abilities converge towards it.  Envision a quagmire and that’s where you end up wallowing.


As managers, we can coach or remove team members that are a drag to work with.  For everyone else, especially in volunteer organizations, we need to check ourselves and others:

  1. Recognize that habitual negativity is career-threatening and organization killing.
  2. End a gripe with a suggested solution and always always (even if there is no suggested solution) offer to take suggestions or advice from others.
  3. Try to “break frames” and get people thinking differently with jokes or humor.  (More on this later; never use sarcasm.)
  4. Watch your tone and use words that are even-handed or fair-minded.  If the situation is more gray than black-and-white, this leaves people open to possibilities and makes it easier for them to help you.

It’s true, your attitude determines your altitude.  Aim high.