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 (]]>

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 (]]>

Confusion for Bosses

My women staff will come to me and say, “How’s your boyfriend?” They feel like a relationship with me should be all access, and I don’t want to set up a situation where I’m becoming this kind of friend with them—not just a friend but an intimate friend. We tell all. Then all of a sudden I’ve got to be the person who says, “Get that done. Get it done tonight.” Then that’s a betrayal of womanhood to assert my authority when it’s going to cost them something. In chapter 2, we considered the negative consequences for female bosses when they are too distant or aloof and do not meet the relational expectations of their female staff. Letitia, a white technology manager in her forties, explained the dilemma that Penny faces as the boss: “It’s as though they expect you to subordinate the boss-subordinate relationship to the woman-friend relationship. They would not ask that of a man.” What is the answer? Both scholars and about 25 percent of the women in this study propose that women learn to make a distinction between being friends and being friendly with women at work, especially when they are the boss. I would go a step further and say that it does not need to be an either/or option—that we can be both friends and friendly as the boss, but we need to be able to name whether we are the boss or a friend in any given interaction, with a clear understanding of how the relational rules or expectations are different in each situation. Kathy, a technology manager, explained how this approach works for her:

I do have two women I was friends with before I was promoted to management. I think we do a wonderful job of saying, “All right, this is a professional conversation.” If it’s a professional conversation, they know there are some things I cannot talk about. And if it’s not a professional conversation anymore, we are also clear with each other about that.
When Kathy says the women are clear about when they are having a professional conversation and when they are not, this means that she and her friends have specified where the boundaries are for each of them in a professional conversation. In other words, they have specified what they can and cannot talk about in their professional roles so that the expectations are clear. More details about a tool to accomplish this type of successful boundary management will be described later in this chapter. But before we go there, let’s take a look at a type of boundary confusion that can be particularly destructive if not handled well: when a friend becomes your boss.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

The Negative Side of Fluid Boundaries

Confusion for Staff In the opening story of this chapter, Penny described one type of boundary confusion from a staff perspective when she told of women bosses who seem to expect personal disclosure that was then used against the disclosers. Her description included sharing of feelings in an all-woman space, where relationship matters, that was then used in a business or hierarchical space where “keeping score” is what matters. This felt to Penny like being tricked by her women bosses and left her wondering whom she could trust. Another example of boundary confusion from a staff perspective comes from a research participant in China. Jang, a human resources manager in her forties, explained that women bosses seem to use relationship as a standard for evaluating the performance of women employees:

With women bosses, we talk about kids, husbands, vacations, fashion, and more emotional things. With men, we only talk about work. With a female leader, things don’t depend on your performance; they depend on your relationship with her and her feelings toward you. I’ve heard other women say they prefer working for a male boss because men are more fair and objective.
It is worth noting that while Asian cultures are known to be more relationship based than is generally true in US culture, the Chinese participants in this study still ascribed key differences in boundary confusion to gender differences. It seems possible that both women’s friendship rules and feminine workplace values are being reflected in Jang’s statement. Both Ilena, in her twenties, and Angella, in her thirties, managers in Mexico, expressed similar sentiments about female bosses. They said that women are more difficult to work with than men because men are more task focused. Ilena also described another situation, from a staff perspective, where relationship expectations across role boundaries were confused because the boss didn’t manage them well. Ilena felt she had to pretend to be friends with a female boss because that is what the boss expected and the boss had more power. Ilena’s boss expected her to act like a friend, which included lots of self-disclosure and socializing outside of work. Once the woman moved to a different department, Ilena explained “I don’t have to be her friend anymore because she’s no longer my boss.” We can see in this case how the mixing of fluid boundaries and hierarchical status differences can create pressure for staff to fake a relationship when the awareness and skills for managing the boss-employee role boundary are absent. From a staff perspective, a lack of clarity about role boundaries, or the inability to name and negotiate them while staying in the relationship, means that women can experience disappointment or confusion about the behavior of women bosses. Female staff can feel tricked or pressured by women bosses or feel that their performance is being evaluated unfairly.  None of these outcomes needs to happen.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

Next Steps for Supporting Women

  • Make a list that describes the characteristics of your ideal boss, in general. Then make a list that describes your ideal woman boss. Once you have your lists, compare them. What do you notice? What friendship rules might be operating for you with your ideal woman boss?
  • Be honest with yourself, and put a check mark by the statements below that apply to you. We have all participated in many of these behaviors at some point. Notice them as you go forward and challenge yourself to stop doing them. Have you ever
    • Laughed at a joke told by a man at the expense of a woman?
    • Assumed a woman got promoted because of whom she slept with?
    • Assumed a woman got a job because of a quota?
    • Talked about other women with men to be accepted as “one of the boys”?
    • Said another woman was too sensitive about gender issues?
    • Been more critical of women leaders than of men?
    • Said, “I hate working for women”?
    • Consciously undermined a woman leader?
  • Use the following scoring guide to reflect upon your answers:

    1–2 checks = You are relatively supportive of other women. 3–4 checks = You are somewhat less supportive of other women. 5+ checks = You have a strong tendency to not be supportive of other women.

    1. Notice your reflex to be critical or dismissive of other women, especially if they are successful. Ask a buddy to do this exercise with you. When you each notice the reflex to be critical or dismissive of other women, mark it down in a notebook or electronic notepad. Share your marks with each other weekly to help each other see patterns and raise your awareness.
      An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

    Women in a Man’s World

    New York Times in April 2013, entitled “Women in a Man’s World,” female executives on Wall Street were interviewed and asked why so few women had made it to the senior ranks. In interview after interview, the female executives blamed themselves for not trying to change the status quo. One of the executives, Irene Dorner, the chief executive of HSBC USA, explained that throughout her career she had “kept her head down, focusing on her own career.” She acknowledged that she and the other female executives in the financial industry had not been very good role models and had not spoken out or complained about misogynistic comments and discriminatory practices. The executive women interviewed for the New York Times article were usually the only women at their levels in their companies. Having limited spaces at the top means that the few women who are there can’t change things alone, so the status quo can continue undisturbed. The junior women in a company may believe a senior woman is choosing not to do anything to help other women when the truth is that the senior woman may feel that her hands are tied. The pressure for lone women who make it to the top to keep their focus on proving themselves to the men, while not being perceived as threatening, is intense. An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

    There Are Limited Spaces at the Top

    You see the successful women as your competition. You don’t really see the whole pie or all the people out there as your competition. I think it’s easier to compete one on one with a woman than with a man. Scholars have described the mind-set reflected by Cherry and Laurie as “a dearth mentality,” or the feeling that there is not enough to go around. This mind-set could explain why we can sometimes feel that other women are our competition. Marissa, a white government supervisor in her fifties, explained:

    Very sadly, I see it a lot in the upper levels of government that women try to do each other in. Women, when they are promoted, will tend to be appointed at the lower end of the salary scale for their position, while the men almost always come in at the top of the scale. Women will try to do each other in at that upper level if another woman starts at a higher salary than they did. You certainly don’t want some other woman doing better than you.
      An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

    Women Are Discouraged from Supporting Other Women

    You’re playing a game with men because there are no women at the top—so you can’t get too buddy-buddy with women because that takes away from your ability to climb the corporate ladder. She went on to explain that because there are few women at the top, men need to see you as a team player. In other words, they need to feel comfortable that you are going to be able to fit in as “one of the boys” and will not threaten the established order. Shantel, another research participant, explained why she does not participate in women’s support activities at her company:

    I work in a very male-dominated profession, and my goal is to learn to operate within that environment. I have trouble being interested in “the women’s this” and “the women’s that” because my life is focused on how can I get recognized and rewarded by the guys.
    An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

    Sheryl Sandberg and Gendered Expectations

    Lean In, makes the point that women cannot ignore the many double binds they face in the workplace if they want to be successful, however they may define success. She makes a strong case and cites solid research about the importance for women of being likeable if they wish to succeed and the double bind this creates for women. One of the studies described by Sandberg was conducted by two professors who used a Harvard Business School case study that described a real-life entrepreneur. They gave the case to business-school students to rate on several factors. Half the students got the case with the name Heidi, and the other half got the same case with the name Howard. While the students rated both Heidi and Howard as competent, they rated Howard as a more appealing colleague, while Heidi was seen as “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” Sandberg notes that this study shows what many other studies have also shown: “When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” In other words, “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” The career implications are obvious. If we cannot get hired or promoted because our competence makes both women and men uncomfortable, we are in big trouble. If we play down our accomplishments and do not toot our own horn about our capabilities to level and be likeable, we cannot get access to opportunities. An additional research finding shows that one reason women are paid less than men for the same work is that women do not try to negotiate for compensation, benefits, titles, and other perks as often as men do. But as Sandberg points out, women have a good reason for not negotiating. We have learned that if we advocate for ourselves, we are often seen as too demanding or aggressive and not someone people want to hire or promote. An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>