How To Be Strong Without Seeming Bossy

Question:

I work in a male dominated environment that has very few professional women (3 to 50+). I am the one the “boys” come running to if if they don’t know something and are afraid to ask a male coworker. They then run to the boss with the answer and look great. In the meantime I just keep doing my job and try to help my coworkers whenever I can.

I was recently “dinged” on my evaluation by my male boss,about my interpersonal skills. I was told (no place written) that because I am a woman, tall, blonde, smart and strong willed that I intimidate my male coworkers. Bottom line question: how do I deal with this without becoming the office “B” and damned if I do and damned if I don’t? Note this is a Public organization.

Signed,

Blond, Tall and Frustrated


Answer:

Dear Blond, Tall and Frustrated:

My first thought is that there is more going on than expressed in this short message. Thus, my thoughts may be inaccurate–or they may be something for you to consider as you develop a plan for your work.

As I examined your message these were the things I first noticed:

*You refer to professional women, but refer to the men as “boys” when you commented on them asking you questions. *You say the boys “run” to you for answers when they are afraid to talk to a male coworker. That is an uncomplimentary way to express it. And, I doubt they have ever told you they are afraid to ask their coworkers, and that is a negative sounding opinion. Maybe they simply know that you know the answers. *You say they “run to the boss” with the answer and look great. Again, that is a derisive sounding phrase. To say someone runs to someone implies they are childish or sly in what they did. Those expressions of attitude may be unintended on your part. But they may also point to the source of some concerns by your manager. *You say you just keep doing your job and try to help your coworkers. But, apparently it bothers you that they do not give you credit when they talk to the boss. If you want to help and you also want credit, tell them so. The next time they ask you for information say, “I don’t mind helping, but do me a favor and at least let someone know I was a resource. Please?” You apparently know you weren’t credited, so if it happens again, say something right then to express your frustration. *You were told by your manager that you needed to improve your interpersonal skills and that you intimidate your coworkers. Apparently your manager has been told about a conflict, or has observed something–unless you think he is deliberately lying to make you look bad, or that coworkers are setting you up.

If your manager feels he is accurate and wants you to change something, I suspect he was trying to soft-sell his comments. It sounds much better to say someone is a tall, blonde woman who is strong-willed, rather than saying something less flattering!

You can’t change being tall, blonde or a woman. (And I doubt a large percentage of men would be intimidated by a blonde or a tall person.) So, that leaves being strong-willed woman. Many women are strong-willed but it does not cause interpersonal problems for them. When it causes problems it is usually because of how they express that part of their personality.

You can see why I think there is more to the picture than you busily working and pausing only to help people!

I’m not saying you are doing wrong things or that your manager is correct. AS I said, it may be your manager is lying to try to create a problem for you. Or, it may be one or more coworkers have set you up in some way. I don’t have enough information to judge that and obviously the small examples don’t reflect all of your work.

However, it may also be true that there is room for improvement in something you are doing. Your message leads me to believe you are not entirely surprised by the critique. Consider these responses to your situation:

1. If your manager told you directly the problem was that you are a woman, and said that in a negative way, that is something you should protest to the appropriate resources in your organization. His critique should focus on your work. If you feel there is no way you will be able to get a fair critique you need to protect yourself about it.

2. If you feel your manager is trying to be fair and in sincere in his comments, ask for another interview with him. Tell him you have thought about this situation and are concerned. You want to do a good job and get along well with everyone, and feel you have been doing that, especially in helping others. So, you would like to talk to him some more and present some other information.

3. Ask some of your friends to support you by letting the manager know, preferably in writing, that far from being intimidating, you have been supportive and helpful on every occasion they have asked. Or, provide the manager with several examples of your helpfulness and ask him to specfically talk to those people about it.

4. Ask your manager what he thinks you could do to change your demeanor to a more effective style. That way you can decide if those things are valid and fair or not. 5. Tell him you have thought about the concept of being intimidating and don’t think it is likely to be caused by being a blonde, tall, woman. So,you would like for him to be honest with you about it and let you know what has been a problem. 6. On your own start working on the things you believe might have lead to the remarks by your manager. Ask your closest work friend to suggest some things you might change in at least small ways. If you sincerely do not believe it is true, ask that friend to support you if you complain about the evaluation and the overall treatments you receive–then document the problems and consider what the best internal resource would be.

7. Decide if you can adapt and/or change as needed. If you can’t, you’ll know the situation is just too out of whack for you to keep working there. Perhaps you will never be accepted and you feel you would have to compromise too much to make things better.

If you can change or adapt, perhaps that would be worth the effort. Public organizations are usually even more aware of gender issues than other groups, especially in situations such as the one you describe. Your manager’s job is to help you be successful, not to tell you to submerge your intelligence in order to get along. On the other hand, your manager’s job IS to help you adapt your style to fit your workgroup better, if that is needed.

You do not indicate that you have been mistreated by male coworkers, so apparently the issue is how to do your work without gender being an issue for anyone–you as well as managers.

Dr. Gorden uses the expression WEGO to describe keeping the work focus on the good of the team, rather than only on individual preferences. Whatever the work of your team, if you keep that as a focus you will be able to overcome these personal issue more easily.

Best wishes as you develop a plan of response and action about this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what develops.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.