When Gossip Is Positive: Introducing Transknitting

Dr. Peggy Drexel reports in the Huffington Post that a research team from the University of Amsterdam found that 90 percent of total office conversation qualifies as gossip. But while gossip, or talking about other people, is generally assumed to be negative, mean, or destructive, the positive side is often overlooked. Here are some examples of the positive results of sharing information about others:

  • Gossip is a currency for building friendships.
  • It builds social bonds.
  • It builds business networks.
  • It builds teams.
The challenge is to separate the negative and positive types of gossip—to stop the negative, which damages trust and relationships, but keep the positive. The participants in my research on women’s relationships in the workplace for my new book New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together explained that sharing information about others is a friendship rule or expectation. They were confused about when it was alright to share gossip and when not to. To make the difference clear, I thought it would be helpful to have some new language to distinguish between positive and negative talk. For this reason, I coined a new term, “transknitting,” to describe the positive type of information sharing—the transfer of information about other people with the intention of building community or teams or of supporting another person. It’s the intention that distinguishes negative gossip from positive transknitting. The problem is that talking about others is so common that we often don’t stop to think about whether what we are about to share is gossip or transknitting. When I first made the distinction between the two and started talking about the difference with my friends, our interactions started to change immediately. We would say to each other, “Oh, wait a minute. I was just about to tell you something, but let me think—is it gossip or transknitting?” We began to be able to make conscious choices about what we were doing. We could choose not to participate in negative or hurtful types of talk about other people. What You Can Do When Others Try to Pull You in to Gossip Gossip is common—and I mean the negative kind—and the pressure from others to join in can be strong. Here is something you can say if others try to involve you in negative talk about someone else: “I may have missed something about Susan, but I think she means well.” In this way you haven’t offended the gossipers, but you have also kept your relationship clean with the person being talked about, and you have shown yourself to be trustworthy to everyone involved. What advice do you have about how to handle situations where others are gossiping? What do you say or do to keep from being pulled in? What is your stance about gossip, in general? This is a complicated topic that we can all benefit from reflecting on together.]]>

Sharing Gossip and Transknitting

As the scene opens, Janice, the supervisor, is sitting alone at her desk. Her employee, Cynthia, approaches her.

Cynthia is quite agitated as she explains to Janice, “I really need to talk to you about something. I have to ask you,” she says in a pleading tone, “please don’t tell anyone in the office. My husband just left me, and it was a surprise. I can barely deal with it. I’m barely functioning here,” she says, choking back tears. “On top of that,” she goes on, with her shoulders and head slowly drooping forward, “I just got back from the doctor and I have to have a hysterectomy!”

“Oh my goodness,” exclaims Janice with a look of concern on her face as she reaches over to pat Cynthia on the arm. “I’m so sorry to hear this.”

Cynthia goes on to explain about her need for privacy. “I really need to keep this quiet.” She looks Janice in the eyes pleadingly. “I don’t want people coming up to me. I can’t deal with it emotionally right now. It’s just too much. Is that all right?”

“I understand completely,” Janice says.

We next see Janice as she enters the lunchroom with a worried frown creasing her forehead. She is trying to maintain her resolve to keep quiet as she approaches two women waiting for her at a table for lunch. “Uhh!” is the sound of her resolve escaping as she loses the battle. “I just had a—you can’t say anything!” The two women agree. “Cynthia’s having a hard time, and I just want to, you know—this has to be confidential. But we really need to support her and to help her. She’s having problems in her marriage, and female problems, too. I can’t go into the details. I trust you two to keep this under wraps. I’m just saying something because we just really want to support her.”

The two women agree, “Yes, of course!”

After a quick lunch, Janice gets up to leave. After she leaves, one of her lunch partners, Andrea, gets up and goes over to another table with two women having lunch and sits down.

Practically whispering, she asks, “Did you hear about Cynthia?”

“No, what?” they say, leaning in with curiosity, glad to be sharing what is apparently a secret.

“Yeah, she’s got some female problems and some marital issues. You have to keep it quiet, though. Don’t tell anybody where you heard this from. All right? You know, we just want to be there for her and make sure to support her.”

The two women mumble their agreement, and they all get up and go their separate ways. One of them, Sandra, sees Cynthia in the hall and goes over to her. “Oh my gosh, Cynthia, I just heard,” says Sandra, as all the color drains from Cynthia’s face and her mouth sags open in surprise. “I’m so sorry about everything that’s going on! I’ve had two miscarriages myself, so I know what it’s like. And, you know, my husband and I were separated for a time.” Cynthia is mortified as it hits her that everyone knows, and she hides her face in her hands. “We were able, through counseling, to work it out, though, so don’t give up,” says Sandra.

“Gotta run!” She hurries off, noticing that her supportive comments have not been well received and feeling a little bit hurt about it.

Cynthia groans. The role-play ends.

As I watched the role-play, I thought, “Yuck! Another role-play about gossip!” But when I asked the group to discuss what they had seen, an argument broke out about whether or not this role-play was about gossip. I was baffled. I could not understand what the argument was about, but the group quickly changed the subject and went on to discuss the other three role-plays that had been performed. I left the session still confused about that argument. An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

How and When to Tell the Boss That You’re Starting a Family

Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times explains that while having children is a routine part of life for working women, the attitudes in American culture about gender and work have not caught up with the fact that women have shown they can be both mothers and productive employees. By the same token, assumptions that men should be breadwinners and not caregivers have also not changed. The results are discriminatory for both women and men in different ways:

  • Mothers are less likely to be hired for jobs, to be perceived as competent at work, or to be paid as much as male colleagues with the same qualifications. They are seen as less stable than women with no children or men.
  • Because men with children are seen as more stable, they are more likely to be hired than childless men and are paid more. But men with children who want to take family leave or use flexible work arrangements to be caregivers receive worse job evaluations and lower hourly raises and are at greater risk of being laid off.
  • There is no legal protection for pregnant workers. A bill called the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act, requiring employers to make “reasonable accommodation” for workers who become pregnant, does not have enough support in the US Congress to pass.
Five Tips for Preparing to Go on Maternity Leave Even with these difficulties, it is possible to balance motherhood and a career. Here are five tips to help you make the transition to maternity leave smoother for yourself and your employer:
  1. Tell your boss as soon after the first trimester as possible to allow time for planning.
  2. Know your legal rights, company policy, and the insurance benefits available to you for maternity/family leave.
  3. Think about your work calendar and begin planning early for big events or deliverables that will occur during your absence. Develop a detailed draft work plan for coverage of your responsibilities, and review this with your supervisor.
  4. Talk with your boss, or HR, about the available facilities for breast pumping so that you know whether breast-feeding is an option when you return.
  5. Determine the amount and type of contact you do or don’t want during your leave, and discuss this with your boss. Develop a communication plan for letting your colleagues and clients know who to communicate with while you are on leave.
How have you handled family planning and maternity leave in your career? Please share any ways you’ve found to overcome cultural perceptions about working mothers.]]>

Four Reasons We Need More Women in the Newsroom

  • Women make up less than a quarter of the top management positions and less than a third of governance positions worldwide in the news media, according to the International Women’s Media Foundation’s “Global Report.”
  • In the United States, only 10 percent of supervisory or upper management positions in newsrooms are occupied by women.
  • A report by the Women’s Media Center found that at the New York Times, only 31 percent of reporting bylines belong to women.
  • Here are four reasons why having more women in the newsroom can make a difference:
    1. When a significant proportion of the news media’s customers are women, and media companies everywhere are struggling to survive, including women in leadership roles will help ensure that programming and reporting will attract a broad audience.
    2. Women leaders tend to create more gender equity in their companies. In the case of Jill Abramson—the first woman to be hired as senior editor of the New York Times in its 160-year history (before she was fired)—she developed and promoted several senior female editors and achieved 50 percent female representation among the newspaper’s top editors for the first time.
    3. Diverse teams are more effective teams. Differences in perspective and life experience bring better solutions to problems.
    4. More representation for women can help keep the spotlight on issues of equity and fairness that will benefit us all.
    All of the points made here about the value that gender representation can add could also be made for all dimensions of diversity. What other benefits do you see for increasing diversity in the newsroom?]]>

    Next Steps for Keeping Relationships Healthy

  • Practice the skill of mutual empathy. Identify a relationship, either inside or outside of work, where you have recently experienced some tension that was not discussed.
    1. Write down what you experienced (describe the behaviors you noticed) and what you felt (for example, surprise or discomfort).
    2. Ask the other person for a time to get together to talk something over. Tell her you are concerned that a misunderstanding might have happened. Tell her what you experienced and felt, and ask her what she experienced and felt.
    3. Listen deeply to each other and ask questions for understanding. Do not interrupt each other. Really listen.
  • Practice naming and negotiating. If a misunderstanding was developing in step 1 above, then name the friendship rules that may have been operating for you, and ask the other person how they compare to hers. Try to agree on new ones that will work better to meet the needs you both have.
  • Practice role hats. The next time you are going to a meeting with a woman who has a role different from yours (with either a level or a functional difference), ask a colleague to help you clarify the roles before the meeting. Write down the role hat you think you will wear and the one the other woman will wear in the upcoming meeting. Debrief with your colleague after the meeting. What did you notice about your expectations for the interaction? Continue this practice before the next few meetings to sharpen your skills.
  •   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

    When Is It Okay to Be Selfish at Work?

  • “I am being undermined by a male peer at work. If I go to my boss and tell him what this guy is saying about me is not true, will my boss see me as selfish and self-serving?”
  • “My boss is encouraging me to apply for a position that would be a significant promotion for me. Why me? I have peers that would be good in this role, too. Will my peers see me as selfish if I apply for it?”
  • “I am burning out in my job because I am a supervisor, but I feel guilty and selfish delegating to my staff, so I do a lot myself instead of asking them.”
  • “I applied for a job, but I haven’t heard back from the woman who interviewed me. I am reluctant to call or e-mail her to follow up—I don’t want to be seen as pushy or self-serving.”
  • “I have been invited to give a TED Talk, but doing so does not relate directly to the work I am doing. The opportunity could provide me with a credential in the future if I ever change jobs, but taking the time away from my work projects to prepare this presentation feels selfish.”
  • Joyce Fletcher, in her book Disappearing Acts, addresses the need to replace the stereotype of women as “selfless” with a concrete understanding of the effectiveness of a relational leadership style. Adam Grant, in his new book Give and Take, reports on research showing that givers are more successful than takers—as long as they don’t “sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of others.” In other words, the best strategy is a “both/and” approach—you can be focused on the needs of others and on your own interests. Here are some tips that helped my clients take care of their own interests:
    1. Stand up for yourself. If a peer, male or female, is undermining you by saying negative things about your work, letting your boss know your side of the story—and confronting your peer—is important. Let the person know you are not going to let him or her damage your credibility.
    2. Put yourself forward for promotions. Research shows that many women hesitate to apply for promotions. In an ideal world, both you and your peers would openly encourage one another, if interested, to apply for promotions and then commit to fully supporting whoever is promoted. Even in the absence of the ideal, you can, and should, apply.
    3. Avoid burnout. Check in regularly with your staff about their workload and help them prioritize their work. If the load is too heavy for them and for you, go to your boss and ask her or him to prioritize your workload or to take some things off your plate.
    Taking care of yourself and your future is not being selfish; rather, taking care of yourself will make you a better employee, boss, and colleague.]]>

    Successful Boundary Management

    To be friends at work requires total transparency—you must be totally honest on both sides of the boundary. It cannot work to be the senior or the junior person if you cannot trust that what you are seeing is what you are getting. I explicitly name the role that I’m coming from—which hat I’m wearing—boss or friend. My friend can ask me which hat I’m wearing in any interaction. She can ask me to change hats. We are always clear about how the role hats are going to work. I am clear with her that when I have my boss hat on, I am speaking from my supervisor role, where I am responsible for the quality of her work—and I may not be happy with it. There may also be things going on in the company that I cannot discuss because of my role, and I will tell her that. We can also be good friends outside of work, as long as we stay clear about our hats. I have joked that I am friends with bosses and bosses of friends. A friendship may not survive if I have to discipline or fire her—but I’ve had good luck with that, so it’s not always a problem. “Total transparency”—this, along with the role hats tool, is the key to enable you to “switch the light on and off” to manage role boundaries and relationships at work.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

    Have Relationships Changed for Younger Women?

                My passion is helping women be successful, and I believe that having strong relationships with other women at work is a key to our success. When I speak about my new book New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together, I am often asked, “Haven’t things changed for younger women?” I always answer honestly that I have not studied the dynamics of younger women’s relationships, which is why I was so interested in a recent article in the Huffington Post by writer and college student Lexi Herrick. Herrick does not claim to be reporting research findings, but many of the relationship problems she sees with women her age sound very familiar. Here are some examples from her list of 18 things women need to stop doing to each other:

    • “Slut-shaming.” Herrick encourages her readers to let other women make their own decisions and to resist the urge to express disapproval of other women’s sexual choices. She suggests this motto to live by: “Not your vagina, not your business.”
    • “Seriously, just saying ‘oh my gosh you’re so skinny’ is just as demeaning as commenting on the weight that a girl has gained. Just don’t.” Herrick says to avoid making any comments about other women’s bodies.
    • “Avoiding actual conversation with a woman you’re in a conflict with.” Though telling others about a conflict may be easier than dealing directly with the person we’re upset with, Herrick advocates for going straight to the source and working it out like adults.
    • “Being fake to each other.” If you’re having trouble with another woman, Herrick says, “Simply don’t associate with her.” Don’t pretend to be her friend, but make negative comments about her when she isn’t around.
    • “Sub-tweeting about each other or crafting any kind of indirect social media post.” Such passive-aggressive behavior may have been acceptable in junior high, but now, Herrick argues, “We are way too old for this sh*t.”
    Please read Herrick’s full list (linked above). Her suggestions are relevant for women of all ages. Herrick closes by saying, “Love and be loved by other women, because when we work together we are a force to be reckoned with.” Yes! What would you say that women need to stop doing to each other to build trust and support?]]>

    When a Friend Becomes the Boss

    I have two close women friends at work, and one of them—it was announced last week—now reports to me. I feel somewhat upset because I think she’s upset. I feel she used to look to me as a friend, and now it’s like, “Oh, gosh. You’re my boss!” She was instant-messaging me the day we found out. She was asking, “Did you know about this?” She came to my house Saturday. I mean, we’re friends! I would never, ever want to upset her by any means. And I was a little bit upset that she thought I would know about something like that and not tell her. There is trouble ahead for these two friends if they do not talk about how this change in their roles at work means their friendship expectations need to change. Kate will not be able to tell her friend everything about confidential information she will have as the boss. If the two women can name and negotiate their expectations for how they will deal with professional topics that come up versus when they are just being friends, they will be able to continue being close friends. If not, the consequences could be disastrous for them professionally or personally or both. A recent example of the kind of trouble Kate may be facing with her friend if they don’t learn to manage the changes in their roles comes from a new coaching client in my practice. This client, Stephanie, a white woman in her twenties who is a union executive, hired me as her coach because she was recently promoted and her good friend, a man, now reports to her. He is upset because he was not promoted, and she feels guilty and thinks she must prove her loyalty to him and their friendship. She has shown her loyalty by telling him information she now hears in her new position, and she has also pushed him into the limelight in some situations where she was supposed to be the one there. Her boss is disappointed in her and is now questioning whether she is willing, or able, to step into her new leadership role. He wants her to cut off the friendship with her colleague and distance herself from him. Stephanie feels stuck. Without the intervention of her coach, she might lose her promotion or damage the friendship or both—but neither needs to happen. Later in this chapter, we will take a look at the tool, role hats, that Stephanie is learning to use. But first, let’s consider some other ways that problems can develop when a friend becomes the boss.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

    Differences Make a Difference: The Intersection of Race and Gender

    Dr. Carlotta Berry recently wrote in the New York Times about her experiences as a black female engineering professor and the challenge of being seen as qualified by both colleagues and students. In their new book, What Works for Women at Work, scholars Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey revisit the hypothesis put forward by Francis Beale in the 1960s, as well as by other scholars, that black women, and other women of color, experience “double jeopardy,” or are doubly disadvantaged by the intersection of race and gender. One implication of double jeopardy is that women of color have to expend more energy than white women to be respected and successful. They are flying against a headwind in their careers that is stronger than the headwind faced by white women. Williams and Dempsey acknowledge that lumping women of color together—even into three groups as black women, Latinas, and Asian American women—loses important nuances of difference within each group. Nonetheless, the differences for women of color found in their research are worth noting:

    • Women of color frequently described their interactions at work as demeaning or disrespectful, words that didn’t come up in the interviews with white women.
    • Black women are rated more harshly when something goes wrong at work than are black men or white women.
    • Black women have more leeway to behave in “masculine” ways than do white women, Latinas, or Asian American women.
    • Black women are allowed to be more assertive than white women or black men, as long as they use their assertive style in the service of the group and not for self-promotion.
    • Black women are allowed to be assertive, as long as they are not perceived as “angry black women.”
    • Latinas have to fight very hard to be seen as competent.
    • Latinas have to worry about being seen as “too passionate” or “fiery.”
    • Latinas are often seen as “too feminine” in their style of dress and as lacking executive presence.
    • Asian American women have to overcome being seen as “too feminine” and passive and, therefore, not leaders.
    • Asian Americans are seen as the “model minority”—too competent, too ambitious, too hardworking and, simultaneously, not sociable and not leadership material.
    • When Asian American women are assertive, they are seen as “dragon ladies.”
    Why is it important to be aware of these differences? We need to support one another as women in the workplace, especially when challenges come up. We can be allies to each other only if we understand both the differences and commonalities in our experiences. We can all accomplish so much more, both individually and collectively, if we can count on other women having our backs. Here’s to women supporting women!]]>