The Abrasiveness Trap

It’s becoming more well known that being an assertive woman in the workplace is not a quality that gets women promoted. Whether a woman’s manager is male or female, studies reveal that women who are assertive are perceived as abrasive compared to their assertive male colleagues who are perceived as decisive and confident.

There’s a lot of advice out there for women. One of the most popular books on negotiation tactics for women, Ask for It by Linda Babcock, suggests that women should be clear about what they want, but that they should ask for it in a “relentlessly pleasant” tone. To the author’s credit, she comes right out and says, “I don’t like it either, but the research shows that this tactic is highly effective.”

However, Babcock follows this statement with one that has a big hole in it. She writes that if enough women play the game and use the relentlessly pleasant approach to acquire positions of power, then perhaps when more women are in power, assertive women applying for jobs or asking for promotions will no longer have to play this game.

This claim is flawed because, as Babcock points out in an earlier chapter, both female and male managers are biased against women. If this bias magically goes away when more women are in leadership roles, Babcock fails to explain the magic.

So what do we do about this trap? I’m not sure. Perhaps negotiation advice for women should be focused less on individuals playing the game and more on communities of women having their eyes wide open and helping each other out.


Take it Further

The Abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews





Leading with Empathy: Yourself, Your Team, Your Customers

When you are leading a project, it’s tempting to focus on the solution. But it’s much more important to lead with empathy. Leading with empathy allows you to understand problems all around you. And once you understand these problems, you are in a much better position to build solutions. In terms of leading a product team, there are three levels of human relationships with which you need to engage empathy: yourself, your team, your customers.
Empathizing with yourself might seem like an oxymoron because the very definition of empathy is to stand in someone else’s shoes. That said, sometimes you need to see yourself as someone who really cares about you sees you. When you need to understand your fear, as a trusted friend might, and distinguish which parts of it are within your control and which parts are beyond your control, then focus your energy on the former. You need to be kind to yourself, just as a friend would,  and tell yourself that you belong here. Empathizing with yourself is the first step to leadership. If you can recognize your own hurdles, then you can help others work through theirs.Empathizing with your team is important to leadership. It’s important to know what each team members goals are. Because when you know that, you know what motivates them and you can help them align their own motivations with the work that needs to be done. Motivated team members are the best team members. It’s also important to recognize the different points-of-view that your team members bring to the table and verbally acknowledge that you value that diversity. This acknowledgment quells doubt and builds confidence. Empathizing with your team members to understand and appreciate their motivations and their diversity creates enrollment. Enrollment is what you need to lead your team.

Empathizing with your customers or users is a path that’s becoming more well known these days. This shift in thinking about project management is a shift from focusing on the bells and widgets of the solution or gadget that you want to build to paying attention to the problems that your customers have. Paying attention requires empathy. It requires emersion in your customer’s problems. The field of anthropology offers us a thorough set of tools for doing this that has been adopted by several prestigious innovation programs.

Leading with empathy will help you understand the problems at every level of the project at hand. Understanding problems will help you lead your team and customers to create and enroll in solutions that are driven by empathy. Empathy all around.


Take it further

Empathizing with yourself: Hardwiring Happiness

Empathizing with your team: Radical Candor

Empathizing with users: Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

Immigration and Innovation

On the fourth of July (yesterday), Tech CEO Ayah Bdeir wrote and shared a thoughtful piece on rethinking immigration: The Hottest New Space to Disrupt is Immigration. 

Disruption is a term that is used a lot by folks in tech to describe a sector that’s ripe for change. Uber is disrupting transportation. Netflix is disrupting network television.

Who and what will disrupt immigration in a positive way?

Bdeir, raised in Beruit and schooled at MIT, believes in the entrepreneurial power of immigrants. Over half of US companies are founded by immigrants. The skills that immigrants acquire in adapting to a new home are exactly the skills they need to succeed in business.

When Trump’s travel ban was implemented in January 2017, Bdeir’s company littleBits placed an ad in Times Square–a highly visible, positive message that framed Arabic and Muslims in a positive and inventive light.

However, speaking out in this way has a real business cost. When Bdeir wrote a piece last week titled “Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance,” it was met with some backlash. Loyal customers wrote to her to say that they would no longer buy her product.

That said, Bdeir stands by her decision to use her voice, “History will judge us if we quietly allow our government to strip us of the diversity and innovation that make America so amazing.”

A true leader.


Inclusion and Computational Design

John Maeda makes important observations about design and how it changes over time. He remembers a time when design was static, pre-computer. And how skeptical designers were of computers then. And how designers’ thinking about computers has changed.

He sheds light on challenging realities. Like even though tech has changed, leadership has not. Professors and heads of universities are still white males. The Bauhaus was half female, yet only the male designers are remembered.

He calls on designers to be curious. To never think that the status quo is good enough. And that that curiosity will lead us to value inclusion. He calls on designers to be mindful of the folks that don’t like change and who will try to stamp out your curiosity.

He calls on designers to explore what computational design means. It changes really quickly, so quickly that we hardly understand it. Also, it’s not the static design of chairs and posters. Computational Design is never done. It gives you data about what works and what doesn’t and you have to respond. Yet, this is not what classically trained designers were trained to do!

He calls out the irony of how we give awards. So easy to give awards to printed books or chairs. So hard to give awards to computational designers whose work is always evolving.

He ends on a note about how he uses his status (his superpower) to promote inclusion:  “I’ve been using this special power to say things that people probably don’t usually say, because I can get away with saying it. So, that’s what I’m doing.”

Amen to that.


For a transcript of the interview above, go here:






When to Take Creative Risks

It’s more often than you think.

Now, if you are building a bridge that can hurt people if it fails, take fewer risks. But if you’re given a prompt or an assignment in which you don’t have to actually build the outcome, you should take risks.  And if you are tasked to make an art piece that challenges the status quo, you should do it. Taking creative risks helps you build creative muscle.

However, too often our blanket response to a challenge is risk aversion. We don’t stop to evaluate the situation and ask ourselves: “Is this a good time for me to take creative risks?” Too often, we default to conservative without giving it any thought.

Taking creative risks helps you get over the fear of looking stupid in front of other people. A fear that we all need to get over. A fear that is holding us back.



from “Make Better Stuff” to a Focus on People

About 500 years ago I gave a TEDx talk called “Make Better Stuff.” It was set in the context of the rise of digital fabrication. My talk was a plea to seize the opportunity, to push beyond making 3D printed key chains and arduino controlled toy cars and really engage in using this technology to make the world better. The focus was on the stuff that people made and the call to action was to make it better.

But over the years I’ve come to realize that if you want people to make better stuff, you need to have more diverse people making stuff. You need to have more diverse people studying STEM disciplines at university and participating and leading in the STEM workforce.

The problem is, most of our tech programs attract white boys and men. It’s hard to know why. Is it because white boys and men have more confidence and thus enroll in these programs? Or is it because these programs are written with language and filled with signals that tell them “You belong here.”

So what do we do about it? How do we encourage more women and people of color to shape the present and future course of technology, to make better stuff?

The answer is complex. We need to teach women and people of color how to navigate the status quo while at the same time, teach them to identify and leverage the qualities that make them unique. We don’t want and need more diversity in STEM programs for the statistics of it alone. We want more diversity in STEM programs because we want more diversity, more creativity, more creative tension, more skill in working through creative tension. Because if we do it right, on the other side of that tension, we’ll have a diverse group of inventors challenging the status quo and making better stuff.

You Can’t Tell People What They Don’t Already Know

This is an expression from my husband’s late father. An Oklahoman, WWII veteran, and dairy cattle auctioneer. Wise words.

Seeing other people’s problems, and the solutions to them, is easy. But helping those people see their own problems and solutions as clearly is nearly impossible. Advice is only followed when it’s asked for. You can’t give people unsolicited advice. It’s ineffective and it’s also a little insensitive. While the advice giver has good intentions, giving advice to someone who hasn’t asked for it can easily be interpreted by the listener as, “You’re not good enough and you’re doing it all wrong.”

Coaching someone though a problem is a lot more work but much more effective. Even so, the person has to want to be coached. All you can do is say, “I’m here if you want help.”



The Coaching Habit


Using Pattern Recognition to Gain Buy-In

When you are introducing a new idea to people on your team or to potential partners or customers, right at the start you need to connect your new idea to something that your listeners are already familiar with. If you don’t do this, your listeners will be distracted, skeptical, and they might even question your credibility.

But if you come right out of the gate and introduce your new idea by drawing an analogy to something that your listeners are already familiar with, you are much more likely to get buy-in. Follow that analogy with some convincing data, and you’ve got even more buy-in. Once you have buy-in, you can spend your energy focusing on the real nitty-gritty of your project rather than spending it trying to convince people that your project should be a project at all.

Bridging the Gap between Play and Work

In progressive education and even in business management, there’s a good amount of talk about the value of play. Let your people play and they will magically become out of the box thinkers. However, if you don’t help your people connect the dots between what they learned during playtime with the processes they use for real work, then the value of play is lost.

If you want your students to use a new process on a project, teach them how to play and iterate with the process on a project that is light and low-risk. Choose a theme that is fun and one that everyone can relate to. If you want them to learn about business models, ask them to generate 50 different models on the theme of food service. Then reflect on the agility they tapped into during playtime and ask them to draw on that same agility for a real project. When they get stuck on their real project because it’s riskier and scarier, coach them to call up the playful experience to help them push through.

If you want them to learn color theory, have them explore color combinations with a poster project about baby animals. Yes, baby animals. They are so cute and fun and they loosen people up. After playtime, reflect on how they explored color. Then ask them to use what they learned and apply it to a real project, something that they care about. When they get stuck, ask them to conjure up the spirit of play that they tapped into when they were working with baby animals. If you do that, you will help your people carve neural pathways from the play and creativity they used in the low-risk project to the creativity they need to tap into for the real project.

If you want your people to play, you need to help them connect the dots.