Q. My colleague rarely works. I sit next to a woman who spends hours each day talking on the phone to her boyfriend, chatting with people who pass by, shopping online and taking long lunches. Meanwhile, I rarely leave my desk and don’t make personal calls. No one seems to notice that my coworker is a slouch. I get more resentful every day. What can I do?
Pamela: Your challenge is how to address the situation in a way that solves the problem rather than intensifies it. To do that you have to feel empowered. So how do you feel empowered when the situation seems so unfair? Ask yourself, “Who do I need to be to resolve this?” The more common question is “What do I need to do?”
Going into a challenging situation asking “Who do I need to be?” versus “What do I need to do?” can be the difference between creating a solution and escalating the problem.
For example, if you go with “What should be done about this?” you may take negative actions like complaining to a mutual supervisor or taking your frustration out in ways that only solve things for the short term. On the other hand, asking, “Who do I need to be in this situation?” leads to a different set of options. If your answer is that you need to be “a rational, justified, empowered person,” you may be able to address your coworker directly and professionally and articulate what she’s doing in a way that doesn’t offend or upset her. You might ask how she finds the time to shop and chat at the office: “I’m so swamped—how do you do it?”
This won’t be the last time you face a situation like this at work. If you start thinking more about who you need to be in these interpersonal dilemmas, you’ll be surprised at how many problems you are able to solve—and how much better you feel!
Q. I recently got promoted over an equally qualified male colleague. I know he’d likely do the job as well as I can, but I work for a company that makes it a point to promote women and women of color whenever possible. Now I’m sensing an undercurrent of resentment among the staff. They seem to wonder why I got the promotion. This is making me feel uncomfortable, and it’s got me wondering if I really deserve this promotion or if I got it only because I’m a woman. How can I quell these doubts?
Mary Lynne: Over the years when men were getting promoted and women weren’t, how many men do you think were uncomfortable when they got the raise over an equally qualified woman? Probably not many. The question is, Why? These men probably had a core belief that they were entitled to the job because they worked hard, were qualified and supported a family. What is your core belief? Do you believe in yourself? Do you acknowledge what you have accomplished and build from there, creating small wins and cycles of success? You will need to do just that to optimize your performance and earn respect in your new role. The undercurrent in the office that you sense may not be a big issue. It could be an inaccurate interpretation on your part based on your self-doubt. If there’s an undercurrent, it will soon fade away as you step up and do your job effectively. You want to believe in yourself and in your entitlement to get the promotion you have earned. If you were not qualified for the job, you would not have gotten it, so focus on doing your best in the new role and prove that it was the right decision.
Q. I am an African American Woman Who Wants to advance in my career. I’m very aware of the stereotype of the “loud, pushy black woman,” so I make a conscious effort to speak in measured, calm tones and to seek frequent feedback from my managers. But after five years with my company, I have watched others get promotions instead of me. How can I prove that I’m ready for that promotion?
Pamela: As an African-American woman, I’ve had firsthand experience with being hyperconscious about how I’m showing up, which can lead down the path you’ve just described, trying not to be “pushy” or not to come off “too strong.” The irony is that we can’t really control how we’re perceived. In fact, hyper-focusing on it can move us away from who we are and can trap us.
Instead, I ask myself, “Who am I? What is my motivation as a professional?” Just asking these questions pulls us out of that spiral, and, even more important, listening to our own answers keeps us clear about our purpose and direction.
To apply this approach to your promotion question, ask yourself: “Where am I coming from in this situation? What is my motivation? What’s driving my desire for a promotion?” If it’s to make a larger, more positive impact on the organization, which I suspect it is, then no matter what’s happening externally, you need to show up that way. When we show up coming from that place, we have the potential to move forward. Good luck!
Q. I work for a boss who’s Indecisive, who often agrees to things and then changes his mind. Should I ask him to put more things in writing? How far can I push him to be more decisive? Or is it my job to work around this tendency?
Mary Lynne: Your boss sounds like about one third of the executives with whom I work. It would be helpful for you to understand what’s going on. Your boss thinks a lot and continues to ponder ambiguities after a decision is made. While you’re ready to go, he continues to think, considering many angles of the situation. With new ideas, he changes his mind. The opposite tendency is to make quick decisions, execute and not look back. Both approaches have their pluses and minuses.
Learn to accept your boss’s style and work with it. Your getting things in writing will not stop him from pondering different alternatives. You could help his thought process by engaging in dialogues with him as he considers approaches. This will add to your stature as a valuable employee and may help him come to a conclusion more quickly. However, don’t be surprised if, even after your dialogues, he does an about-face on a decision. That’s just how he’s wired. Don’t judge it. Your acceptance will help you move on and focus on the task at hand.