Lean Where?

Be pleasant. Be aggressive. Cry in the office. Don’t cry. Sheryl Sandberg’s advice in Lean In is totally confusing.

Facebook's Chief Operating Officer (COO) Sheryl Sandberg attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 27, 2012.

Sheryl Sandberg in 2012

Photo by Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Sheryl Sandberg is not sure what kind of book she has written. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is not a memoir, a self-help book, or a career-management how-to, she writes in the book’s introduction. It’s not a feminist manifesto, but it is “sort of a feminist manifesto.” Whatever it is, it is for “any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously.” And Sandberg wants us to do it by breaking the internalized attitudes that cause us to “hold ourselves back in ways both big and small.” She wants us to “lean in” to our careers. We can “dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today,” she tells us. “We can start this very moment.”

In the weeks leading up to the book’s publication, critics have squabbled over Sandberg’s authority to administer that advice. The Facebook COO is an out-of touch elite who hopes to bolster her own reputation by holding women responsible for their failure to advance instead of institutional sexism. Or else she is a powerful woman with the business clout and a personal fortune ample enough to launch a mainstream feminist revolution. Or perhaps poking at Sandberg’s approachability is evidence of another sexist double standard. (I once worked at a startup where my CEO forced us to read a 300-page dialogue between Visa founder Dee Hock and an anthropomorphized section of his own brain he referred to as “Old Monkey Mind”; accessibility is not exactly a hallmark of the business writing genre).

But Sandberg’s prominent perch in the male-dominated tech world is central to the promise of Lean In. Read this book, follow my lead, get ahead. Throughout the book, Sandberg carefully weighs the double binds, internal and external, that keep women from reaching their potential in the workplace. Then she dispatches personal anecdotes to explain how she navigated them to become, as a Forbes listicle once anointed her, the fifth most powerful woman in the world.

Unfortunately, Sandberg’s combination of sort-of-feminist analysis and not-really memoir doesn’t square up. Take her advice on how women should navigate one of the most vexing double binds in the workplace: Study after study demonstrates that “success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” Sandberg instructs women to resist the urge to internalize those stats. We should not “question our abilities and downplay our achievements” in an effort to “protect ourselves from being disliked.” But then again, “people want to hire and promote those who are both competent and nice.” Being disliked isn’t a sustainable option. So at crucial moments like job interviews and salary negotiations, she tells women to carefully “combine niceness with insistence,” be “relentlessly pleasant,” and appear “nice, concerned about others, and ‘appropriately’ female.” But then again, “even when a woman negotiates successfully for herself, she can pay a longer-term cost in goodwill and future advancement.”

When faced with a murky body of evidence like that, Sandberg leans on a personal anecdote like this: At her first Facebook performance review, Mark Zuckerberg advised her that her “desire to be liked by everyone would hold me back. He said that when you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress. Mark was right.” End of chapter.

The entire book plays out like this. Sandberg encourages women to fake confidence in the workplace by investing in “an hour of forced smiling” or by “assuming ‘a high-power pose.’ ” Then again, women would do best to communicate “authentically.” Women shouldn’t be afraid to cry on a colleague’s shoulder at an emotional time, she says. Then again, “research suggests” that “it is not a good idea to cry at work.” Women shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for flexible work hours to handle family commitments. Except that “employees who make use of flexible work policies are often penalized.” Women “need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that,’ to thinking ‘I want to do that, and I’ll learn by doing it.’ ” But then again, men are promoted based on their potential while women are promoted based on their past accomplishments. Except that “a woman who explains why she is qualified or mentions previous successes in a job interview can lower her chances of getting hired.”

The more Sandberg attempts to shoehorn her own career lessons into the “lean in” framework, the more confusing her advice becomes. Sandberg encourages women to take a seat at the table, raise their hands, and speak up, even as she recognizes that higher-ups often perceive women who do so to be running their mouths or interrupting men. But later, Sandberg mentions that she enlisted a career coach to train her to speak less. “In order for me to speak the right amount in a meeting,” she tells us, “I have to feel as if I am saying very little.” So Sandberg leaned in … to shut up. Elsewhere, Sandberg details how she engaged in some corner-office subterfuge to conceal how much time she was spending with her kids. At Google, she had her executive assistant schedule her first and last meetings of the day in remote offices so no one would know just where she was. This time, Sandberg codes this behavior as “leaning back”—internalizing workplace sexism—and says she regrets doing so. “Looking back, I realize that my concern over my new hours stemmed from my own insecurity,” she says. And yet here she is, multimillionaire COO of Facebook. For all we know, this strategy could have been a key to Sandberg’s success.

Reading Sandberg’s book, it’s clear that women don’t just need to lean in. They need to carefully calibrate the angle of their approach to suit every possible scenario. When Sandberg is in “feminist manifesto” mode, she is honest about this. She admits that navigating the double standards of the American workplace is as easy as “trying to cross a minefield backward in high heels.” But when she flips to memoir, the implication is that she tilted herself just-so and that other women can, too.

This narrative strategy becomes even more obvious when Sandberg encourages other women to replicate the formula. Reading through the dozens of stories on her Lean In organization’s website, you don’t learn much about real barriers women face in the workplace or how they navigated them. Christine Silva “leaned in” to quitting her Ph.D. program once she received an offer of her dream job. Wei Deng quit a dream job in law after getting an offer in finance, then quit a dream job in finance when she got one in technology. Tina Brown’s “lean in” story concerns her decision to jump from Vanity Fair to The New Yorker with two young kids. How did Brown lean in? She recruited her mother, who “leaned in, too”—by hopping across the pond to volunteer her child care services. Apparently, a woman can “lean in” to anything—a new job, a grad school drop-out, or an unpaid gig as caregiver to your grandkids. As long as she ends up successful, it’s supposed to make sense.

These stories aren’t telling us anything beyond the clichés of the inspirational poster (which Sandberg admits a fondness for). Well-behaved women seldom make history. You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Now, instead of soaring eagles and dunking NBA players, these clichés are illustrated with the headshots of employed women. On its face, that isn’t any more offensive than any other career guide that your CEO happened to buy you all for Christmas. But I wonder how I would have felt had my boss and his all-male senior team assigned Lean In as required reading for the lower-rung women in the office. I’d probably have told him to lean the hell off.