A professional woman whom I coach had been invited to give a short presentation to another department by that department’s head, another professional women with executive and professional degrees. After finishing what she felt was a well-received talk, she sat down in the audience, a few rows in front of the department head. When the meeting was over, the department head approached my client, telling her, “I noticed how tired you seemed while you were sitting there. Are you ok?”
This is organizational politics at its very worst! Let me be very clear: if anyone at work (unless they are your very best friend and close confidant) tells you that you look tired, they are insulting you, attempting to undermine your confidence and not-so-subtly putting you in your place. It is thinly veiled passive aggression! When a senior woman directs this at a more junior woman it makes me crazy!
Before writing this essay, I would have argued that men rarely take this tact. My impression after years of working in corporate environments is that men are more direct. The dominant culture in most of our organizations is male centric and directly competitive. Many of us have worked in organizations where senior management turned everything into a competition and, though the executives attempted to soften it by making it informal and surrounding it with laughter, there was no mistaking it.
When I first started at The New York Times, in the early ‘80’s, the Advertising Department would have a sales conference that lasted the better part of a week. Along with strategy sessions and setting stretch goals we had some time built in to get to know each other better. Golf foursomes were put together and friendly tennis round robins were organized. The conference culminated rather famously with the Olympics, during which each of the sales departments would field a team. Everything was up for grabs, from which director made the best entrance to the closing event – the tug of war – that sometimes resulted in cracked ribs. But it was all just friendly competition…except the best man won! Do I need to tell you that it changed when a woman became the head of advertising?
At Petersen Publishing the sales conferences were also the stuff of legend, sometimes involving men on motorcycles and javelins and balloons. The handful of women who worked in advertising cheered demurely from the sidelines.
Women and men form teams differently. Much has been written about early play behavior and what it means for men and women at work. For example, early experiences in team sports supposedly teach children (more often boys) how to deal with conflict and competition, how to default to rank and status hierarchies, how to play with people they don’t like and how to compete with people they do.
Early experiences in process and relationship play supposedly teach children (more often girls) how to treat others nicely, how to avoid conflict, how to build relationships, how to collaborate and how to avoid risks.
But these different forms of early socializing have resulted in two very polarized stereotypes for women in the workplace: The Righteous Woman – or the one who believes that women have a distinct moral obligation to help one another and The Queen Bee – the one who argues that women just can’t get along (Much has been written about these archetypes; see the writings of Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant for example. Also: “Why Women (Sometimes) Don’t Help Other Women,” Marianne Cooper, The Atlantic, June 23, 2016.).
But diving into the research on conflict in the workplace once again reveals a double standard in stereotypes: conflict between men is normal and when they compete with one another it is direct and healthy. When women compete with men or other women it is seen as passive, indirect and it’s considered petty, mean and dysfunctional.
However, it’s not true. While men do engage in more direct competition than women do, studies show that men in the workplace are just as likely as women to engage in indirect aggressive behaviors like gossiping and social exclusion, yet women are considered to be nastier when they do so.
So back to my client. She was clear that the “care” the other woman showed was aggressive, meant to undermine her. She wanted to brainstorm ways to protect and defend without rolling over AND without escalating. We came to the solution that I call “solicitous condescension.” It goes like this:
“You look tired. Are you ok?”
“I am great and I thought the talk went really well. The staff was really engaged. But it worries me that you were sitting behind me but you thought you picked up that I was tired. Are you projecting a bit? Are you ok?”
We had a good laugh as we practiced this retort, not sure either of us would ever be able to deliver it with a straight face, but she hung up clear that she was not going to let any one else undermine her confidence. There are men and women at work who do not have our best interests at heart. Avoid them as best we can. Most importantly remember that there are good men and good women at work. We should all try to surround ourselves with people who lift us up and inspire us to feel good and do better. Sometimes gender has nothing to do with it.