Office politics? Feel uncomfortable ‘bragging’ about yourself?

A few months ago, I was at a café in downtown Boston enjoying my favorite peach iced tea on a Friday afternoon. It had been a long week, and I was looking forward to the weekend.

A lady in her early thirties walked in – let’s call her Jessica. Dressed in casual Fridays, she was on the phone as she ordered a chocolate gateau. When she turned around, I noticed her teary eyes. I looked away, to give her some space.

But the only empty seat in the cafe was next to me. Jessica settled in.

This was the gist of what I gathered from her side of the conversation (hey, I couldn’t help it. She was right next to me!)

Jessica’s unhappy meeting with her boss

Jessica had just finished a meeting with her boss. He had told her that she needed to speak up more, take more initiative, manage her team better, etc.

And it seemed like Jessica agreed with most of what he said.

“Yes, I have been feeling inadequate at work of late. I take charge of my own team meetings well, but I don’t speak much in meetings with my boss and other higher-ups. I keep fretting if what I want to say is important enough to be brought up. Sometimes, I can’t even think of anything smart to say.”

The more Jessica spoke, the more emotional she got.

“I know my team loves me. I’m way more considerate than most other managers.  But it’s so frustrating – I mean, I know they’re overloaded after the recent staff cuts, but they don’t finish what I tell them to do. And now it makes me look like I’m a bad manager.”

“They also play the usual office games – bypassing me and talking directly to my boss. He takes decisions with them, without keeping me in the loop. I don’t want to be petty and tell them to stop talking to my boss, but these office politics really annoy me.”

Jessica finished her call by saying that she was considering taking a break. “I need to clear out my head and think about what I want to do with my life.” 

She pensively took bites of comfort from her dessert as she fiddled with her phone.

I couldn’t hold myself back any longer. Yeah, I know I can be intrusive sometimes, but I’m just too passionate to stay quiet when it comes to such things.

I introduced myself to Jessica, and confessed that I had caught parts of her conversation. Then I asked her if she knew that most women face these challenges every day at work. That there’s nothing wrong with her specifically.

She looked at me wide-eyed. She said, “But my issues are not related to gender. No one is biased against me because I’m a woman. The problem is with me. I’m just not bold enough to speak up. And I don’t know why my team won’t listen to me – perhaps I need to learn to be tough as a manager. But it doesn’t have anything to do with me being a woman.”

And there, my friend, was exactly where she was wrong.

Women face these, and many other, challenges routinely at work. Even bright, capable women, often struggle to perform at the workplace.

Why do even bright, capable women struggle at work?

Because of our conditioning  from when we’re little girls. We’re trained to speak softly, raise our hands and wait for permission, be perfect, care for others, be modest, follow the rules, etc. Well, we’re even told to act coy and “wait for the boy to ask you out.”

Women are trained to take the back seat all our lives.

Then we enter the workplace. And suddenly the rules have changed! Here you’re expected to drive things, speak up, break the rules, take charge, tell people what to do, etc.

And that’s a huge gap! When we struggle to navigate through it, we think there’s something wrong with us. We think that maybe we’re not bright enough. We think we’re too straightforward and ‘soft’ for the ‘tough’ workplace.

But we also know that we don’t want to become mean and cold. Because that’s just not us.

So we ‘take a break’. Or we ask for a job where we don’t have to deal with the stress.

By now, I could see that Jessica was getting it. But she still looked unhappy. She said, “Ok, that makes sense. But what does that mean? I understand we need to change how we bring up our girls.”

“But what about women like me who are already working?”

“Is there no hope for us?”

I told her there is hope. Plenty of it. I asked if she had heard about the growth mindset. I told her that recent science shows that we can unlearn anything we want to, and learn anything we want to, at any time in our lives. That we can rewire our brains.

I said, “All these things that we learn as little girls, that hold us back at work, we need to unlearn them. Sure, it’ll take time. And it’ll take some effort. But it’s a science and there’s a process to it. It can absolutely be done!”

I glanced at my watch. It was time for me to rush back for my last meeting of the day. I asked Jessica to check out Rekindle if she wanted to help herself. Assured her that she’s not alone. And left her my card.

I was reminded of this incident when Jessica reached out to me last week to say that she’s on the program and already feels much better about herself. That it’s like having a personal mentor who takes the time to guide and encourage her every single day. That she felt lucky for bumping into me at the café.

I don’t think it was luck. I believe these things happen for a reason. I think the universe brings you help when you most need it. And if you’re proactive, you’ll take the help and reap the rewards.

Jessica did. And I’m excited to see her transformation over the next year. It’s about time the world saw how awesome we women can be! Cheers to that!

Wish you the very best!

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