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 (]]>

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