How To Be Helpful without Burning Out at Work

recent article in the New York Times, Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg talk about how selflessness and helping behavior are expected from women in the workplace, both as supervisors and as colleagues. Scholar Joyce Fletcher explains that many women place a high value on helping others and being a team player. Others also expect us to be helpful, nurturing, and generous with our time and talents. Yet Grant and Sandberg cite several studies showing that when women help others by being informal mentors, volunteering to organize office parties or charity events, and offering to support colleagues, they benefit less from it than men do. And “if a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.’” These different expectations set up another double bind for women—we are expected to do extra helpful things that men are not expected to do, which may cause us to miss career opportunities. And if we don’t help, we are disliked and receive lower performance ratings. Grant and Sandberg also report that an analysis of 183 studies, spanning 15 countries and dozens of industries, shows that women are significantly more likely to feel emotionally exhausted. They note that “in their quest to care for others, women often sacrifice themselves. For every 1,000 people at work, 80 more women than men burn out.” Here are three ways women and men can prevent burnout for women:

  1. Track and reward helping behavior. Most organizations track and reward individual accomplishments but do not require or reward communal helping behavior. Expecting both women and men to be helpful to the team by assigning communal tasks rather than relying on volunteers and rewarding or valuing helping behavior from both women and men will help to correct the imbalance that often exists.
  2. Prioritize our own needs as women. Remember Tammy? She forgot to make her own needs as important as the needs of her staff. She will actually be more helpful to them if she takes care of herself and does not burn out. In his recent book, Give and Take, Grant explains that to achieve high performance with low burnout, people need to prioritize their own needs along with the needs of others.
  3. Men can speak up more to support women and share the load. In a previous article, I shared research showing that men tend to dominate meetings and interrupt women. Instead, men can speak up to draw attention to women’s contributions and can do their share of the team support work and mentoring.
Let’s be clear. Organizations and teams need helping behavior to be successful, but that work needs to be equitably shared by both women and men to be done effectively. Please share ways you have found to help at work without burning out.]]>

What Makes Teams Smart? (Hint: Women)

New research reported in the New York Times shows that one of the most important characteristics of effective, or smart, teams is that they include a lot of women—not just equal numbers, but actually more women than men as team members. This is more proof that organizations need more women at all levels and in all functions because most decisions of consequence, in every type of organization, are made by teams or groups. The authors of this new study, Anita Woolley, Thomas W. Malone, and Christopher Chabris, report being surprised to find that the smartest teams had three characteristics in common:

  1. The members contributed equally and were not dominated by one or two members.
  2. The members individually scored high on a test that showed skill at reading complex emotional states in the eyes of others. Even in virtual teams, where people could not see each other’s faces, the researchers reported that smart team members scored high in theory of mind, or “the ability to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know, and believe.”
  3. The teams with more women outperformed teams with more men.
These findings make sense in the context of previous research showing that differences in gender socialization result in different patterns of strength in women and men. Early feminist scholar Carol Gilligan found that women more often develop and utilize an ethic of care, or concern for others, when making decisions, while men more often develop an ethic of justice, or concern about fairness. Another early scholar, Jean Baker Miller, wrote about the centrality of relationship, or self-in-relation theory, in the identity development of girls. Her work evolved into relational cultural theory, summarized by Judith Jordan, which celebrated women’s relational skills and also looked at the intersections of gender with race, sexual orientation, class, and other dimensions of difference and power. All of this is to say that it makes sense that having more women on a team will give the team greater capacity to tune into each other—to listen, empathize, and collaborate to draw out the wisdom of a group to make the best decisions. Unfortunately, recent studies also show, as I have previously reported, that women have a hard time getting their ideas heard in many teams, especially when women are in the minority. If you are collecting information to build a case for hiring and promoting more women in your organization, be sure to add this new study to your file, and share it with your boss and coworkers. Changing the gender balance on teams by adding more women can produce better results for the organization. This new study, along with several others that I have written about previously, can help us chip away at persistent negative stereotypes and unconscious gender biases that create barriers for us. Have you seen the benefits of having many women on a team—or the consequences of not having enough women? Please share your experiences.]]>


  • “It’s hard for me. I’m not good at confrontation.” (Paula, nurse)
  • “I don’t like confrontation. I allowed a coworker to intimidate me.” (Laurie, manager in the travel industry)
  • “I’m a wimp! I would let conflict slide and then come around, behind the scenes, and do that passive-aggressive thing. That’s not good.” (Sheri, technology manager)
  • “It’s difficult because you don’t want to make somebody angry.” (Claire, nurse)
  • Paula summed it up best for this group of women: “We weren’t raised that way [to be direct and confrontational]. We were told that women didn’t do that . . . you were to be seen and not heard.” “Seen and not heard”—I remember being told this when I was growing up, along with “girls are sugar and spice and everything nice.” I remember thinking that I had to avoid confrontation because it could damage a relationship—or, as Claire said, “make somebody angry.”   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

    Transknitting in Practice

    other daughter must have told her. “Why are they talking about me?” he asked. “Don’t I have a say about who talks about me? And besides, why does Patty care whether or not I’m sick after all this time?” “You don’t have a say, she doesn’t care, and,” I answered, “this isn’t about you.” “What do you mean ‘it’s not about me’?” he said. “I’m the one they’re talking about.” “They are transknitting,” I replied. “You are not the point. They are using information about you to do their mother-daughter relationship work. This is really not about you.” They were talking about Mike to connect, just as my mother and I talked about people we both knew to connect. There was no negative intention toward Mike. His daughters and their mother were engaging in one of the positive types of talk.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

    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 (]]>

    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 (]]>