Dear Miss Matters,
I’d always heard that working in an office environment with women had the potential to be unpleasant, but until recently I’d never experienced it myself. Now, however, I’m faced with a tough situation. My former boss, who had a great deal of power over me before the company split, has done her level best to grind me down to sawdust. I started off for the company feeling terrific, but over the course of two years this woman took every available opportunity to belittle me in front of others, and to speak poorly about my clothing, hair, make up, skills, intelligence and weight to her friends and our fellow co workers when I was not present. Frankly, it hurt. A lot. I tried everything in my power to be likable and friendly, but it seemed that there was just something about me that offended my former boss to such an extent that she took to mocking even my tone of voice on the phone. I was left bewildered and sad. I was not the only one she did this to.
Now I’ve been able to find a brand new job, with new possibilities and a terrific future. I was careful not to list my former boss as a reference, instead choosing to list the name and number of the woman who replaced her as my immediate supervisor after the company split. For some reason, my new potential employers didn’t contact the woman whose name I’d given them. They contacted my former boss. And she belittled me to them. I don’t yet know what kind of effect this is going to have on me.
I realize that the behavior of others only impacts us as much as we allow it to. I know that negativity is a noncommunicable disease if we inoculate ourselves with a positive attitude. But my God, has this ever dealt a blow to my trust, my self image, my feelings of worth as a human being, and even my personality. I want to move past it. How can I do that if I don’t even understand what it is about me that made another human being so angry that they chose to paint a target on my back? Am I giving off prey vibes? Does being overly chipper and friendly push people’s buttons? How do I keep this from happening again? There’s a balance between weakness and strength that I haven’t achieved, and I’m almost forty. Miss Matters, I could use the guidance of someone who’s a little more workplace savvy than I have ever been.
– Nervous At The Office
First of all, many freakin’ congratulations on your new job. Let’s start there and have a moment to really celebrate your new chapter before we talk about closing the yucky previous one.
Yay for you!
Okay. Back to your unfortunate lady-boss experience. If you were only inquiring about the fear of your old boss having belittled you to the new one, I’d simply tell you that if you were a great potential employee on paper – enough so to reach the references portion of the hiring process – then you aren’t entirely at grave risk with that [I’d bet awkward] phone call. To paraphrase Forrest Gump: crazy is as crazy does and any grouchy employer who takes the time to begrudge a former hire to a new superior is showing more of her own true colors than she is exposing yours.
But you’ve obviously suffered enough at the hands of your former boss to be entering into your next position with insecurity and I’d like to offer some comfort to you there. Firstly, you’ve been hired. Let that bolster your confidence. You’re good enough. You’re smart enough. And doggone it…well, we’ll address the part about people liking you in a second.
Sadly, Nervous, professional women may not quite be ready to parade in the streets over a new company culture in which women support each other indiscriminately and reach out their proudly manicured hands to hoist each other up the ladder. But lean in* with me and let’s discuss the new feminine expectation in business and whether or not the environment is really, you know, woman-friendly…at all.
I do believe that [some] women want other women to “have it all”, but I’m not so sure how many of us are truly there yet. If you follow any of the myriad tomes about female (particularly adolescent) social psychology**, or – heck – if you can even vaguely recall your middle school relationships, you’re probably aware of the concept of latent aggression in girls as a result of social pressures to comply to a standard of femininity. To sum up what real psychologists and better writers than I have previously said: we are at a point in society where women have rejected the passive associations of being “good girls” and we’re wearing our intelligence and opinions and ambition proudly. But – as is with most transitions – the move from doormats to leaders has been a bit clunky…particularly in the workplace.
The fact of the matter is, despite significant female advancements in the workforce, there are still very few spots for women at the top. And the women who are there don’t have very much security. So the aggression once reserved for the men who didn’t let us play the game can now be directed at the competition posed by our other newly-empowered sister teammates. It’s every woman for herself, and you, my sweet AND accomplished Nervous, are a serious threat. If you can perform to task and maintain a delightful attitude, don’t you think angry-pants lady-boss wants to knock you back down to size? Of course she does. You’re not prey, love. You’re a big, bad hunter. And “chipper and friendly” only makes you more of a wolf in sheep’s clothing to your former employer.
The question all us girls should be asking at this point is where do we go from here? Do we reject the “good girl” platitudes (even if they are, in fact, honest) in favor of taking up arms in the #girlboss fray? Do we reject our aspirations and abilities to make way for the women who are more cutthroat than we? How do we promote and take pride in our own successes and still have time and energy to celebrate other women in the same proverbial boat?
You are very right that the negativity of others only penetrates as much as we allow. But there will always be a friend, a co-worker, a boss who is just not nice. So find the people who do support you and love you unconditionally and expect to hunker down with those folks and good ol’ numero uno (that’s YOU, Nervous) when the going gets tough.
And do your job well. Show up and participate and set your own unique professional goals so you’re always striving and achieving and feeling awesome. When you meet female (and male) co-workers along the way who share your dedication and your care and respect for others, by all means, “lean in” and hold on to them tightly. And when you do encounter more resentful, competitive colleagues who don’t honor the good work you do or appreciate the lovely human you are, lean the [expletive] back. And I mean lean all the way back, put those deserving feet up and let the crazy-pants tire themselves out with all their wasted negative energy.
You don’t have time for them.
You, Nervous, have a job to do.
* I may make a few jokes about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. But, humor aside, I feel it’s important to state that I champion the ideals set forth in the book and continued through LeanIn.Org. The organization’s commitment to providing community, education and Lean In circles provides and promotes confidence and achievement for women everywhere.
**My personal favorite expert on the subject is Rachel Simmons, founder of the Girls Leadership Institute and author of Odd Girl Out and Curse of the Good Girl.