Find Mediators Near You:

Negotiation in the Shadows: A Book Review of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg is the current Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.  Her book is intended as a practical guide to the continuing challenge of overcoming the still elusive and unrealized goal of gender equality in our society.   She has all the necessary credentials to be a valuable spokesperson and to garner the outsized media attention the topic deserves.  However, despite offering useful suggestions about how women can affirmatively assert themselves to be taken more seriously and obtain the positions of leadership they deserve, she fails to give any significant attention to the negotiation process and skills essential to realistically “lean in” and achieve those objectives. Sandberg undermines her own purpose by leaving such a strategically important skill set hidden in the shadows.

Sandberg is a former executive at Google and presently the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and on Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.  She is a symbol of American business success, and presumably, and presumably, a studied and capable negotiator.  In addition, worthy of note and a measure of excitement, especially to more age-advanced readers, that as someone from cyber-world royalty she would deign it appropriate to publish a hard copy book.   It is, however, available as an e-book and there is a complementary website (, and one might reasonably assume, a dedicated Facebook page.

Her starting point is the inescapable reality that, while women have made some progress over the last 30 years, women still remain significantly under-represented in positions of authority in the corporate world and in government.  As she observes in the introduction, “(t) he blunt truth is that men still run the world.”   “Of the 195 independent countries in the world, only 17 are led by women.”   Similarly,  “…the percentage of women at the top of corporate America has barely budged over the past decade. A meager twenty-one of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Women hold about 14 percent of executive officer positions.”    “….This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect our world, women’s voices are not heard equally.” Needless to say, she adds, “…. (p)rogress remains equally sluggish when it comes to compensation.

Sandberg’s expressly stated purpose is to provide a practical guide for women to obtain the recognition and compensation their contributions deserve and the increased representation in leadership that gender equality obligates. She does not deliver as well as she could have, but not for the reasons most frequently given.

She has been criticized for focusing on what women can do for themselves as opposed to pushing for structural changes and against institutional obstacles to equality.  There is little to suggest, however, her suggestions are intended to preclude simultaneous work on the macro level.  Far from being mutually exclusive, they are both necessary and complementary approaches.  The ‘lean in’ actions she advocates fuels both seeking greater accommodations and the pursuit of legislation, legal action and corporate policy change.  For both levels negotiation will be the required and primary skill set to address issues such as differential compensation, the absence of family support policies, de facto or intentional discriminatory practices in hiring or promotion, inappropriate behaviors (“sexual harassment”) and difficult (“hostile”) work environments.  

Sandberg has also been criticized as an elitist, who because of her privileged background, education, wealth and position, faces less risk and is out of touch with the realities of work most women face on a daily basis. She does not appreciate the overpowering circumstances—harassment, low pay, limited options— most women confront.    And, especially germane to the ‘lean in’ behavior she advocates, her critics view Sandberg as naïve for failing to be aware of the power imbalance between women and the still predominantly unenlightened male management/power structure.  (Many present day viewers of the television series “Mad Men,” set in the 1950’s and 60’s, find the blatantly misogynistic cultural ethos amusing, or are intrigued by the fashions, and perhaps lulled into thinking those inequities have been largely cured and do not make the connection that it was only in 2009, a few short years ago that the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed into law and yet to be widely enforced.)  Many people believe “leaning in” is not a feasible approach unless there is a “level playing field” and the parties involved are willing to be reasonable and cooperative. 

 Most experienced negotiators recognize the idyllic circumstances of a level playing field are seldom, if ever, present.  Participants in a controversy, be they individuals, corporate executives, or nations, come with varying degrees of leverage made up by their respective legal rights, entitlements, access to resources, political support, moral rectitude, and strategic negotiation competency and skill, among other factors.  The power dynamics between the participants, as in any negotiation, are always shifting. As history has shown, the static assessments of who has the power and will prevail in any given controversy are frequently flat out wrong.  Be it the civil rights movement for racial equality, or the present shift in acceptance of LGBT rights, are cases on point; based on calculations of raw power, few would have predicted the political, legal and social shifts of the last 50 years.  In fact, minorities and those with less power can often turn their low status to their advantage by virtue of the determination they gather by having less or nothing to lose.

Lean In is, in fact, a timely and necessary book just because it bravely raises the  “internal barriers” that impede women’s’ personal pursuit of gender equality. The inference drawn by some that Sandberg is perilously close, if not directly, “blaming the victim” by considering how women may be contributing to their own lesser role and holding themselves back, whether done wittingly or unwittingly, by allowing “internal barriers” to form is unwarranted.  The cultural, biological, psychological and evolutionary forces that have shaped women’s’ psyches and attitudes over the centuries, have sometimes necessitated they accept a more passive role as a matter of survival.

Given the present state of gender equality, Sandberg’s call to action in Lean In is relatively mild.  Being willing to “lean in,” however, can be risky.   The actions called for are not without consequences and can be intimidating; they require women to directly engage in and take personal responsibility for their own decisions. Challenging the status quo can expose people to career threatening sanctions and the risk of economic, political and social loss.  “Leaning in” —pressing to negotiate and adjust unfair circumstances— no matter how thoughtfully approached, makes one a troublemaker to those in power. In the course of history, troublemakers, small and large, have not been easily welcomed and the first approach to dealing with them has seldom been negotiation. To gather the determination to negotiate—or to “lean in”—and deal with issues in a relationship, organization, community, or society, almost always requires overcoming ones’ own reluctance and resistance and almost always calculates there will be, at least an initial, defensive negative response, if not outright contempt for those “leaning in.”

The amount of criticism Lean In has garnered since publication is indicative of the level of resistance that always follows leaning in and the prospect of being obligated to negotiate difficult situations.   Curiously, however, if not viscerally, then at least intellectually, many people can understand how, by leaning in, women, or any who choose to redress an inequity, can gain a greater sense of competency and control over their lives and careers. The leaning in process is not therapy, but it can often be profoundly therapeutic.

Unfortunately, the most compelling, even if least heard criticism of Sandberg’s Lean In, remains unaddressed.   The core skill set that is absolutely essential for leaning-in is negotiation, yet there is little clear or direct discussion of those strategies, techniques and skills. Some hint of why negotiation is marginalized and slighted is partially apparent in the historical resistance that surrounds a behavior that is commonly associated with difficult matters that people would prefer to avoid.  However, there is no denying or avoiding the reality, especially in our complex society, that at some point in the management of every issue or controversy, regardless of context, people will be obligated to negotiate some accommodation of no longer tolerable circumstances. Negotiation is how cooperation is accomplished; communication is essential but not sufficient; and laws provide some structure but do not allow for sufficiently nuanced application.  The integration of change in an organization requires ongoing negotiation.  

Despite the fundamental importance of negotiation for the effective functioning of an organization—especially in cultures that pride themselves on being interactive and participatory—negotiation approaches, strategies, techniques and skills are seldom taught or discussed.   There is no leaning in without negotiation.

Without an appreciation of negotiation, while Lean In is somewhat useful as an inspirational book, the value of Sandberg’ book as a practical and realistic course of action to gender equality is seriously compromised and left unfulfilled.   It devolves into just another “self-helpy” kind of book. The chapter headings are illustrative:  “Chapter 3. Success and Likeability,”  “Chapter 6.  Seek and Speak Your Truth,” and “Chapter 11. Working Together Toward Equality,” which convey the feel and rhythm of change but lack the necessary muscle.  None of the chapters discuss negotiation at any length sufficient to help a reader appreciate the skills essential to be effective.  Without intending to be snide, with a Masters Degree in Business Administration, one would think Sandberg would know that any competent business plan should include a statement of the preparation necessary for a realistic and successful campaign to reach the goal of gender equality.   Without a sufficient business plan, the “lean in” tactic becomes little more than stirring words, like fireworks exploding, but quickly dissipating in a cloud of smoke.  To “Seek and Speak Your Truth,” for example, is of little value without careful study of how one might frame the discussion and craft the message in a way that is most likely to grab the attention of those one seeks to have listen.

Many people think negotiation is little more than just a bunch of skills—or tricks—that sharp people do to get what they want. Either not knowing any better, or more cynically, they confuse Donald Trump’s blustering ultimatums with competent negotiation, unfortunately not least of those confused, appears to be “The Donald” himself.   

Lean In will be of little value if the understanding of what women should do is to merely follow in the same vacuous misapprehension, or strident style of negotiation. Unfortunately, the book titles lists as similar to Lean In, in the “people also bought” window, are seem to do just that:  Hardball For Women, Pushback: How Smart Women Ask-and Stand, or Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office.  They do not lend themselves to a thoughtful or nuanced approach to leaning in or negotiation.

Just acquiring skills is not enough; the dedicated study and practice of negotiation is about appreciating the levels and complexity of issues and controversies, and how to approach and manage them effectively.  Obtaining a level of competence and proficiency in negotiation can bolster a women’s’—or for that matter, anyone’s’—self-confidence and self-esteem in a manner allowed by few other disciplines. It’s unfortunate she does not make the connection between leaning in and negotiation more clearly and directly because studying the skill set is critical to dissolving the internal barriers women have often allowed to hamper their success.

The closest Sandberg comes to discussing negotiation is in her observations about the gender differences in psychological make-up between men and women and how that influences their behavior. She aptly describes the greater tendency of women to be more passive than men, especially in their professional careers and in the workplace, leaning back and assuming their work and commitment will speak for itself, and be acknowledged and rewarded accordingly.   Many of her observations follow in line with the work of previous writers who have documented gender differentials in education (Carol Gilligan), communication (Deborah Tannen), and emotional expression (Carol Tavris), among many others. But she does not go far enough; she does not examine how men and women tend to approach negotiation.   Given her purpose of encouraging women to ‘leaning in’ to the pursuit of gender equality and the importance of negotiation to that end, failing to address how men and women tend to differ in their approaches to negotiation approach becomes a significant flaw.

Women tend to underestimate their ability to negotiate; they would be at even greater disadvantage were it not for the tendency of men to ineptly overestimate their ability to negotiate. In divorce or workplace controversies, for example, women are characteristically more hesitant to negotiate; they view the process as little more than a game that minimizes the importance of the issues.  Many women express resentment for being expected to negotiate over issues of their children’s’ care—child support or time arrangements; it is viewed as demeaning if not immoral.  Men, by contrast, often view negotiation as an alternative form of game playing, not unlike other sports that demand, and allow for the demonstration of aggressive determination to win.  Both men and women are hampered by the lack of reflection on their respective negotiation weaknesses. Women passively hold back, appearing powerless and conflict avoidant, while men aggressively charge into the process eager to “cut to the chase” and “close the deal” without thinking.

Ironically, if the negotiation process were better understood, the internal barriers some women have to negotiation could be circumvented and re-shaped into a strength that allows for greater ‘lean-in’ effectiveness.  Men could likewise benefit from moderating their negotiation weakness into a strength that might allow them to obtain more constructive agreements.  Specifically, women’s’ confusion, doubts and concerns, which are frequently perceived and understood as signs of indecision and incompetence, can be turned into fodder for asking necessary questions and exploring options.  Questioning, thought to be a weakness, becomes a tactical strength by slowing down the negotiation process.  For men, their eagerness to “solve the problem” can be converted into a strength by centering “the game” around generating multiple alternative options that address the issues and concerns raised, distracting him from “cutting to the chase” and increasing his negotiation acumen 

That women and men tend to think, manage, negotiate, make decisions, and lead somewhat differently is critical to strategizing how “leaning in” can be most effective.  Research in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology appears to increasingly challenge the assumption of a “unisex” brain. (Brizendine, Louann, The Female Brain, 2007).  Women are thought to have a higher level of communicative skill and a demeanor more attuned to emotional dynamics, both of which are useful, if not essential, for effective negotiation.   Conversely, the biological and cultural conditioning that encourages men to be more assertive can also lead to them being impatient with the process of negotiation.  Leaning in will require women to understand and develop confidence in their ability to negotiate, and men might do well to be study the process and become more reflective. 

Lean In offers little or no discussion of the preparation necessary to set the stage for negotiating, there is almost nothing about the timing, whom to approach first, building alliances, informal and formal process channels, framing of the issues, and a whole host of other factors that make for an effective negotiation, or leaning in, process. Negotiation cannot be merely a footnote in the book; it needs to be a significant chapter. Negotiation is not listed in the Lean In Table of Contents, there are few references to people or topics connected to negotiation practice in the index, and the direct discussion of negotiation is effectively limited to 4 pages in the body of a 240 page text (p. 45-48).  With the exception of an off-handed suggestion that women would do well to use the word “we” rather than “I” in discussing issues, there is very little other attention to techniques and skills. The clearest direct reference to negotiation is on the book’s complementary web site listed in the back of the book. The absence is glaring, especially in light of the fact that there is no mention of one of the most important books that directly addresses the special concerns of women and negotiation, Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas in Bargaining, by Deborah Kolb and Judith Williams (2000).   Both of the authors were at Harvard University during roughly the same time Sandberg was a student.  Kolb is a former Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.  As a relevant side note, Everyday Negotiation was first published with the title The Shadow Negotiation:  How Women Can Master Hidden Agendas That Determine Bargaining Success.  Presumably, the change reflected the publishers concern that a book on negotiation just for women would not sell as well and had to be pitched to a broader market that included men.  

Sandberg realistically understands that women cannot just decide to do away with their internal barriers and lean in.  She appears to appreciate that for women to overcome the self-doubt that frequently immobilizes them, they may need “to fake confidence until you feel it.” Curiously, the best way to create the illusion of confidence is through skill training and simulated practice.  Unfortunately, she does not offer even an overview of that necessary coursework.   Even more unfortunate is that her failure to be conversant with negotiation practice is not unique even though she is a highly educated and accomplished professional.  Many professionals remain unfamiliar and unstudied in the process despite the fact that it is core part of their work.   It is only more apparent for Sandberg in that she is a graduate of the Harvard Business School (M.B.A., 1995), which resides in the shadow of the Harvard Program on Negotiation.  

Even though negotiation is a fundamental human skill set, its’ teaching and study remains remarkably uncommon even in the present day.  Largely untaught in undergraduate colleges, it remains a filler elective course in most graduate and professional schools, even in those disciplines where the negotiation will be primary for competent professional practice such as, law, business, medicine, or counseling.

Because negotiation skills are so important in our complex world, not just in pursuit of gender equality, but as well, in any issue of consequence, bringing attention to Sandberg’s oversight is all the more necessary. Most people have learned what little they know about negotiation on the job or by the seat of their pants. Some people, to be sure, have an intuitive knack for negotiating but might do well to be more disciplined; many others are less attuned, and some still struggle to see the relevance or need for negotiation in their work. As a result, many professionals are as likely as not to perpetuate the many misconceptions about negotiation and their approach is often haphazard and riddled by unexamined habits that are ineffectual and sometimes counter-productive.

As helpful as this book might be in inspiring women to “lean in,’ what is missing is equally as telling, and in its’ own way important.   Relegating negotiation into the shadows, marginalizing the discussion and fundamental importance of process, given how importance of the process to a functioning society—especially a complex one such as ours—should be deeply troubling.   To that end, this book squanders yet another opportunity to have people recognize the inextricable linkage of negotiation competency to effective advocacy in any matter or cause. General discussions of leadership or collaboration without an awareness of negotiation as a primary working part, is like trying to understand the movement of the human body by examining the bare skeleton without considering the workings of the tendons and muscles that propel and hold it together.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


ODR and Trust

This chapter is from "Online Dispute Resolution Theory and Practice," Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Ethan Katsh & Daniel Rainey ( Eds.), published, sold and distributed by Eleven International Publishing. The Hague,...

By Noam Ebner

Interview with Nina Meierding

This video is presented as part of's 25th Anniversary Conference.

By Nina Meierding

Workplace Conflict: Facts and Figures

Employee attitudes and characteristics In a 1990 survey: 62% of respondents indicated that they would be more willing to take legal action regarding employment discrimination than they were five years...

By John Ford