The Magic of 3 in Business

Once Upon a Time There Were Only Two

In graduate school I observed a phenomena that I ultimately dubbed and branded the rule of 3.


To understand the rule of 3 and how it operates I Invite you to step back in time with me. We’re seated next to each other in a graduate school classroom. The professor is leading a discussion on race as a factor in medical/psychiatric diagnoses. Lots of white students participate in the conversation. There are two black students in the class. They remain silent.

I’m puzzled and disappointed. We lost the opportunity to hear a non-white perspective on a racial issue. I’m curious about why this happened, so I seek out the professor. She references social science research. “Until three members of the non-dominant group are present, they typically will not speak up, and if they do they will often not be heard.” I tuck this tidbit away without knowing why or how I will use it later.


As a leadership and business psychologist, my work focuses at times, on bringing talented women and women’s talents to the leadership table. The tidbit finds its purpose.

When corporates ask what metrics to set for women’s initiatives, they hear about the Rule of 3. Their visual response is often that snap-to-attention look on someone’s face when they become instantly aware of something that’s been happening, yet gone un-noticed, for a long time. They suddenly see the lack of attention to the voice of the lone woman in the room. You can almost see them watching the not-so-instant replays in their mind’s eye.

“Include 3 women on the leadership team,” I advise. Equivalent ratios are reference by other experts and thought provokers in the field of women’s leadership, including Linda Tarr Whalen and David Gergen, (staff adviser to four presidents and senior political anaylst at CNN) in his introduction to Enlightened Power: Transforming the Practice of Leadership.

THREE – changes the conversation and the culture. Why change the culture? The 2008 economic debacle is a good reason, for starters. Had there been a Lehman sister, better yet, three sisters, the voice of caution and reason may have prevented the economic crisis, the one from which the world has yet to recover. We need a culture in which many views, not just the prevailing view of the dominant group, is heard and valued.

Women collaborate. They get people (ages 3 and above) to play well together. Women are concerned with ethics and social good. Women use their power and resources to build stronger families and communities. The business world needs our voices at the table, and those currently in power need to listen. Ipso facto



No matter how you position two points, they always form a straight line. They either align or oppose. There is no other possibility. Two can agree or differ. Three breaks the tie and moves things forward. Three allows us to see more than two sides of an issue. Three points to a third way. It is the third eye seeing into another world. Three creates stability. We announce first second and third place winners – gold, silver, bronze. Third time’s a charm.

Business leaders say diversity sparks innovation and enables their company to appeal to a diverse customer base. But have we taken advantage of these benefits or have we just created window dressing? To test and reap the true benefits of diversity we must aim for inclusion of the non-dominant groups, the ones who did not set the rules or determine the prevailing cultural norms. In the business world, this means women, among others, because we did not set the rules, but we can be a force in changing them.

One woman, unless she is bold and unafraid, is not apt to speak up, and if she does she is not likely to be heard. Two don’t want to be seen as always agreeing with each other, or representing The Group. “Let’s ask Jane what women think.” But Jane wants to be valued for her individual contributions, not as a representative of All Women, who don’t think the same, anyhow. So, there you have it.


the-rule-of-3_blackAnd later co-founder, with Dorothy Dalton, of a leadership incubator for high achieving women leaders duly named…

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17 Responses to The Magic of 3 in Business

  1. Mary Wilson February 8, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    Yes, I have observed the Rule of 3 in many groups. I have also observed, less frequently, the lone person who has the raw courage to speak out despite the risk. Sometimes that person is ignored, and sometimes, if they keep speaking up, they are finally listened to. However, our world can no longer wait for “outsiders” to be heard, so I applaud your efforts to speed up the process.

    I was often the lone woman, during my early career years as a leadership development professional in the steel industry. At 2 different large companies, I was one of the highest ranking women–and yet I had barely reached the mid-management ranks. We’ve made progress, but not enough and not fast enough.

    • Anne February 8, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

      Mary – You have added significantly to this discussion with your point about having the raw courage to continue speaking and then you go even further by stating we don’t have the time to wait for that lone voice to be heard anymore. Applause. Any suggestions from you and others about how we can speed up our listening as well as our hearing?

  2. Vickie Gray February 9, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    Nice! In our teamwork lab we have learned that 2 is an argument but 3 is a team. The key is to go ask for help from other women in joining the team and helping you. Thanks for this!

    • Anne February 9, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

      Thanks Vickie. I like “2 is an argument. 3 is a team.” It has a bumper-sticker feel to it.

  3. Crystal Gollwitzer February 17, 2011 at 10:49 pm #

    Anne, I had the chills while reading this! What a powerful message! It quickly reminded me of a recent pep talk that I gave to my mother, who is a wonderful woman and a recovering addict. Mind, Body and Spirit I told her!! You need to take care of all three! And amazingly enough, here it is again just a couple days later…the rule of 3! What an inspiring concept!

    • Anne February 17, 2011 at 11:01 pm #

      Crystal – Thank you. Your comment means a a great deal to me. I’m excited that we are getting to know each other in a different way.

  4. Billie Adler February 21, 2011 at 9:26 am #

    Anne, what a great article; I feel so energized just thinking about the possibilities.

    On a more humorous note, after I finished reading the post and started saying “3” in my mind, all of a sudden I found myself silently singing “Three Blind Mice.” So I ran through the lyrics quickly in my head to see what magic, if any, might happen and was then disappointed to discover that at the end of this childhood rhyme the mice get sliced and, alas, what good befalls them? I refused to let 3 let me down. Hmmm…I thought a bit more and then fell on to two positive possibilities: “no pain, no gain” and the fact that maybe we don’t need tails after all!

    Keep tripling up! A new theory to oppose trickle down!

    • Anne February 23, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

      Thanks for playing and thinking on Germane’s playground. I like triple up much better than trickle down.

  5. Anna Smith February 24, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    Re: NOW Contest ( ) – I submit that the curious business cat is related to Jane Perdue because one of her blog posts once made me draw 30 circles and turn them into shapes and objects.
    Anna Smith recently posted…wdywft- Roles &amp Responsibilities Of A Manager http-bitly-dZVOFW Check out this excerpt from the great book Lateral Approach to Taking ChargeMy Profile

    • Anne February 24, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

      Very cute. No comment until all replies are in.

  6. Karen Tremper March 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    I loved this article because I have found it to be a reality. From my experience if you are one women in a group of men — then you are a role model that shows it is possible to move to the top but not necessarily a change agent. When there are three women or 30% then the opinions and thoughts of women cannot readily be discounted as “that is just the way women are.” When there are three, women are no longer voiceless.

    • Anne March 8, 2011 at 7:49 pm #

      Karen, thank you for the validating the Rule of 3. And it’s nice to see you here again. Please come back and share you voice soon.

      • Anne March 30, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

        Erin- Thank you for the feedback, and so glad to hear you are working in sales again. I can hear you loud and clear.

  7. Erin McCarthy March 30, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    Anne – great artilcle, just what I needed when I am living as the outsider on my sales team – yes, the only women! Good thing I’m not afraid to speak up, but it’s been one to many times that my voice is never heard, good thing I don’t give up so easiy because at times its extremly intimidated and discouraging. So until the team grows and hires more women I will have to wait for my 3 and just make sure my voice is heard loud and clear.


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