Ask Annie

How women can respond to that other B-word: Bossy

April 24, 2014: 1:36 PM ET

Strong, assertive women sometimes get called "bossy," which is never a compliment. Men get many of the same criticisms -- just in different terms.

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FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: A little band of women in my office (including me) have been talking about Sheryl Sandberg's campaign to get people to stop calling girls "bossy" when they show leadership traits that would be praised for boys, and we're curious about what you and your readers think. I have been called "bossy" all my life, starting when I was just a kid, right up through performance evaluations at my last employer.

Maybe I'm super sensitive about this, because I don't see myself as bossy, just firm and demanding, the same as my male colleagues. Now, my daughter is getting called bossy by her volleyball teammates, which really bugs me. On the other hand, some women here say that being called bossy is just one of those negative stereotypes we should learn to ignore and rise above. Your thoughts, please? -- Not Bossy, Just the Boss

Dear N.B.J.B.: Your signature sounds like what Beyonce said in her TV ads for Sandberg's crusade ("I'm not bossy. I'm the boss."), a series of spots that also featured Condoleezza Rice and actress Jennifer Garner and kicked off a brief storm of controversy in the press last month. The thinking behind banning "bossy" -- and the reason the effort is co-sponsored by the Girl Scouts of the United States -- is that calling girls like your daughter, but not boys, "bossy" discourages female kids from developing the leadership skills they'll need to succeed as adults.

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There's probably some truth to that. "Why is 'bossy' always bad?" asks Gabrielle Adams, who teaches organizational behavior at the London Business School. "Does it have a negative connotation because it's always applied to women? Or is 'bossiness' ascribed to strong women because it's negative?" Either way, she says, the word implies that "someone is assuming, or exercising, authority they're not entitled to. They're overstepping their bounds."

When London Business School asked 2,218 women managers if the word had ever been applied to them, 54% said they'd been called bossy at some point, or at more than one point, in their careers.

"A man showing the same traits would probably be called decisive or powerful instead," Adams notes. She points to years of research by Princeton University psychology professor Susan Fiske showing that, while men can be considered both likable and competent, women are perceived as less likable the more competent they are.

"A woman who is a strong leader is violating what people may regard as 'normal' feminine behavior, which is submissive and self-effacing," says Adams. "That can be unsettling or even threatening, which is why 'bossy' carries such a load of hostility."

So how should women respond? "You can certainly call someone on it if they call you that, and explain why you hold the opinion or take the approach" that earned you the epithet, Adams says. "But that just means that women have to spend more time and energy defending themselves, and justifying their behavior, than men do."

Or do they? Here's where it gets a lot less clear. Nancy Friedberg, a longtime executive coach and president of Career Leverage, often gets called in to large companies to work with male senior managers who "don't get called 'bossy,' but their colleagues do complain that they're 'abrasive' or 'arrogant' or even 'bullying.' It's the same behavior, just described in different terms." (Her favorite HR euphemism for domineering male bosses is "rough around the edges.")

Whether the difficult person in question is male or female, Friedberg says, the coaching method is the same: Figure out how and why this manager has gotten co-workers' hackles up, and help him or her to alter the offending behavior.

"The most effective leaders of either sex can be assertive and strong while still being respectful," Friedberg says. "They can point out problems and mistakes while still leaving others' dignity intact. Whether you're male or female, being highly controlling or judgmental is what's seen as 'bossy' or 'abrasive' -- and it's not a leadership style that works well for anybody."

By her lights, anyone who is called "bossy" (or "abrasive") would be smart to take a hard look at why others think that. Friedberg recommends going after honest feedback -- either via a formal 360-degree evaluation or, more informally, just by asking around -- with examples of particular instances where one's management style rubbed people the wrong way.

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"Most of your coworkers are only too happy to tell you" where you could change or improve, she notes. "Just don't be defensive. Really listen to what they're telling you." Then try to do less of whatever it is that comes across as "bossy" (or bullying).

In rare instances, she adds, she has met women whose authority is resented no matter what they do or how they do it, at which point it may well be time to move to a different company, perhaps one with more women in high places. "It could be a bad cultural fit," she says. "But usually, if people in one organization object to the way you're communicating with them, you'll get the same reaction wherever you go." If that's the case, then simply ignoring being called "bossy," as your officemates say they do, could be the riskiest way to deal with it.

Talkback: Have you ever been called "bossy" if you're a female manager, or the male equivalent if you're a man? How did you respond (if you did)? Leave a comment below.

About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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