What was your relationship like with your mother when you were growing up? I bet a flood of memories just came to you. Whether good, bad, somewhere in between, or perhaps absent, many women forge relationships with other women based on the dominant female relationship in their formative years. The struggle to develop a full sense of self and separateness from “mother” stays with us for a long time, extending into other relationships.1 Friendships, romantic relationships and professional relationships are all affected by this phenomenon, without even realizing it. The top three struggles between women in the workplace revolve around blame, battles and boundaries. These struggles happen either between peers, or in the subordinate/manager relationship, and are as complex as they are varied. Let’s explore.
Women who struggle in relationships with their female colleagues tend to view other women through one of two lenses: as a competitor, or as someone to be questioned and counseled. The competitor lens is common between women who work at the same managerial level, or have similar responsibilities. They either connect with the other woman and become allies, or view the woman as a threat or competitor. If the colleague is seen as a competitor, a woman will often feel threatened about the security of her own position, or her performance. The variety of perceived threats are many, but the most common fears women express are: being undermined, criticized, or feeling inadequate or ineffective. These fears are borne out of the competition associated with the lack of high-level positions. Many women vying for the same open spot often creates rivalries between competitors. These struggles can result in the blame game.
More commonly referred to as criticism, the blame game can be the equivalent of grade school bullying. When women gang up on a co-worker and either gossip about them, or outright criticize them, the results can be devastating. Even to the point of having a solid employee quit. Often the catalyst for criticism is jealousy or fear toward the woman receiving it, because she is actually doing a superior job. Conversely, it can be that she is doing a poor job and getting away with it. Some workplaces even have an office sniper. This is a person who makes snide remarks and leaves just before the recipient has a chance to respond or engage. Many consider this ‘hit and run’ behavior, and it has the same effects. It damages without recourse – but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The most productive response I have seen to a culture of criticism over the years is to create an environment of credit and praise. Beginning with yourself, whether you are in a co-worker environment, or manage a team, be the change you’d like to see. Here are just a few ideas that have produced dramatic results:
- Develop a “Wall of Fame” where people are given credit and praise for a job well done.
- Conduct strength development training, either in group settings or one-on-one.
- Initiate peer crediting. Openly praise another person’s work in a meeting, or in front of a sniper or office bully.
- Manage self-talk. Be good to yourself! If you are the object of criticism, (sometimes self-criticism is a huge issue), don’t join in on the conversation. Remind yourself of your strengths and embrace them.
- Likewise if someone is putting themselves down, share your positive observations about their work.
Battles and Conflict
Conflicts, and less frequently battles, will exist in any working relationship at some point. It’s inevitable, and can even be a good thing because the resolution can bring about stronger relationships, and excellent problem solving opportunities. Conflict happens between peers, and with managers and their direct reports. Common catalysts to conflict include: gossip, burnout, triangular communication, and viewing the manager as “Mom”. Key symptoms or reactions to conflict can include eruptions, physical symptoms, burnout and in some cases tears. If a coworker or direct report is exhibiting these behaviors, do not make the mistake of assuming the cause. It is common to write off such behaviors as maturity issues or personal problems. Instead, take a step back and assess. Take some time with the employee to understand her situation. If you learn that a conflict indeed exists, taking swift steps to resolve it is essential. The first step in resolving the situation is to acknowledge the issue or conflict, and to focus on the issue, and not the personality of the individual. Then, resolve the conflict:
Set the ground rules for the resolution – Select a neutral, third party mediator, and have that person explain the rules of engagement. Typical examples include stating the desired outcome at the meeting onset, not interrupting, not judging or over reacting, and acknowledging the other person’s feelings and concerns.
Create a forum for conflict management – Once the ground rules have been established, select a proper spot for the discussion, and provide details of how the process will work.
Creative solutions – Often a discussion session or series of sessions, perhaps with HR involved, can resolve a conflict. Sometimes it takes a little creativity. Consider the following options some of my clients have implemented: changing seating arrangements or offices; role reversals (where two people swap jobs or responsibilities); scattered work schedules where the two parties work at different times or from home; or force an agreement.
Some conflicts cannot be completely resolved, but can be mitigated through a forced agreement. If the two parties cannot come to a resolution, you can suggest that they agree to disagree. This approach should accompany the suggestion that focusing on the work at hand rather than the other person is the priority. If one party is the clear offender, the resolution may be eventual termination after proper cause is established with the necessary documentation.
Boundary issues typically occur between a manager and someone on their team. A common dilemma is when a subordinate that questions authority, manager decisions and actions, or worse, is a chronic advice giver. This often occurs when a subordinate is older than their manager, but not always. Boundary issues can even go so far as the direct report trying to usurp managerial power, and attempt to create a role reversal. Actions surrounding boundary issues are a product of the desire to keep the playing field flat by women who want to create a “we’re all in this together” atmosphere. Establishing clear boundaries from the beginning of taking on a managerial role, or after a boundary ‘dispute’ is essential. Calling together your team, or creating a survey to identify staff wants and needs is a great first step.
In doing so, you establish several things:
- An atmosphere of trust
- A willingness to understand
- The opportunity to establish standards
When your team feels you are interested in and care about their input, it builds trust. Further, enabling your team to express their wants and needs helps them feel ‘understood’. Done correctly, this exercise can boost morale considerably. While some of the wants and needs may be unrealistic, collectively they will paint a picture of the underlying reasons boundaries are being tested.
Once you assess their responses as a whole, you can then establish standards for boundaries. You may find there is a common theme in the responses. Some responses may give you pause, and the opportunity to self-examine if the issue hits home. If the main response pertains to the team rather than your management style or a policy you’ve implemented (for example), the approach to establishing a standard can take a couple of different forms. It may be quite simple, with a clear fix that is easily identifiable. In this case, you can implement a standard to eliminate the boundary issue.
Say, for example, a co-worker is reluctant about providing a due date or details of an assignment that is part of a bigger project. In her nebulous response, she projects superiority to the group members and comes off as being in charge. This response is a boundary issue because she is trying to be above the group, when in fact she is a member of the team. One solution could be to implement a timeline with clear expectations of weekly updates and solid due dates. The timeline would be team created and approved, and be the new standard. Whatever the case, the solution lies in digging in to find the issue, resolving it together as much as possible, and making the new standard, which resolves the conflict, known to all.
On the other hand, the boundary issue may be more personal. You may have a subordinate that tends to challenge you in different ways, offers unsolicited advice, or even goes around you to circumvent your authority. Recently, a client shared that a team member had submitted a project update to a senior leader in her company without routing it to her first for review. The incident caused dissension between upper management and my client, and the need to establish a clear boundary with her subordinate. Yet, she was reluctant to address it. Worse yet, this was not the first time this behavior happened. However, my client realized she now had to address it in order to protect her own reputation and possibly her position. The issue was that this particular team member had a volatile personality and my client was has a calm management style. I armed her with the following techniques to tactfully and successfully correct the situation.
1) Acknowledge the conflict. Calmly tell the person with whom you’re in conflict that you’d like to set up a meeting to discuss the incident. State that you realized you both have a different view or opinion, and you’d like to reach some common ground.
2) Focus on the issue, not the personality. My client had to accept that her employee might indeed become angry or flippant, but was ready to bring the conversation back to the issue at hand. She was ready to say, “I understand you’re upset, but we need to discuss the process,” instead of; “you’re over reacting, calm down and let’s talk.” After your subordinate has expressed her rationales, concerns or frustrations, be sure you understand them. Repeat back her concerns to convey you have heard her. Perhaps you can assuage them, and perhaps not (if company policy or procedure prohibits it), but the act of hearing her out will go a long way toward correcting the issue.
3) Set the ground rules. Once you have addressed and answered her concerns, establish the ground rules going forward. Be very clear in the details of the process and your expectations that she will follow them to the letter. The key here is your delivery, which needs to be calm, and matter of fact.
One of the most common boundary issues occur when a woman from a peer group becomes manager of that same group. I counsel clients in this situation to take some serious time, maybe a weekend away, to consider how they will approach their new role. A successful step-up transition includes having a plan to implement the following. Understand that you will need to:
- Break the rules of the ‘flat plane’. You are no longer part of the group.
- Lead by collaboration and directives. Get group input if necessary, but in the end, you call the shots.
- Change your relationships with former peers. This tends to be the most difficult for women. You need to strive for an atmosphere of friendliness versus friendship.
- Know that some will find the new situation “unfair”, and plan a response to it.
- Endeavor to take issues less personally, and develop a shield. This will involve some level of detachment from the situation. In other words dealing with the situation at hand, and leaving the emotions behind.
If you are currently challenged in the areas of blame, battles or boundaries and need some additional counsel, please give me a call to set up an appointment. I would love to help you become your best self in the workplace.
1 Women and Self-Esteem. Sanford and Donovan, 2004