Recently, I’ve been the recipient of some sad organizational stories - all from women. They come in a variety of forms:
Some have managers and executives who lie.
Others have colleagues who steal ideas.
Every one has some version of an organizational ‘promise’ that hasn’t been kept - with each case being to the detriment of the woman involved.
And, interestingly, each one comes with a Perpetrator (yes, we’ll call those people the Perps) who says that what he or she did for her was - somehow - for her own good.
What a bunch of bullshit.
So, since I believe nothing is coincidence, it struck me that since I’m hearing these stories - in droves - it’s incumbent upon me to give you the single piece of information that will serve you best throughout your career:
There are people who will cheat you.
It’s going to happen. That’s a given. But whether you’re prepared for it or not - well, that’s a different story.
Part of the problem is that there are a variety of ways that you get cheated - but for women in business there’s a trend to the whole thing…and it has everything to do with the Perp (man or woman, sadly) taking advantage of your socialization as a woman and a ‘team’ player.
So, rather than telling anyone else’s tale, I’m going to give you my origin story of being cheated - because I didn’t see it coming. Twice. (Yup. I was definitely slow on the uptake.)
Perp Story Number 1
So, there I was. A newbie corporate person in my first career-oriented job. I was so excited to be there.
The company I was working for - an aerospace firm - needed someone who could make sense of the people and the numbers and the organizational dynamics…all in one.
I was the person who could do it.
The organizational problem was that while I was doing the work for the organization’s most senior executive, the Managing Director, I couldn’t report to him. It was an HR thing. (Don’t get me going on stupid HR policy - that’s for a lot of other days.) So the person they had me report to directly was a senior manager who, basically, had been cruising for years - and knew they were onto him.
Only I didn’t know that.
That was the Perp. An older guy that, since I was so young, was also tasked with ‘grooming’ me to be an executive.
What a bunch of bullshit. (You’ll be reading that a lot in this post.)
Time went on and I was doing my work. I had a steep learning curve and a very large remit. But I was on the case - and so excited.
Until I noticed that a lot of my early results weren’t being attributed to me. By the time I would meet with the Managing Director, he would already have heard what I was talking about…and would then ask me if I had anything ‘new.’
Only what I was presenting to him was new. The only other person who knew about it was the Perp - who had me reporting to him multiple times a week with everything I had been doing. That was so he could give me his ‘guidance.’
As he repeatedly told me, it was all for my own good. After all, as a newbie, I didn’t really understand how organizations work - and this one in particular. He was helping me build my career. He was being my ‘mentor.’
What a bunch of bullshit.
Suffice it to say that I caught on after a few go-rounds and confronted him. After all, if I wasn’t proving my worth to the organization - at least in the eyes of the Managing Director - it would be I who would lose my job.
Not the asshole. (Sorry, I meant the Perp.)
There was no way I was going to allow either his continuing to take credit or lose my job so I took action. I spoke with his manager (yes, I did an end-run), brought evidence and explained my case.
Thankfully, his manager had figured out that the Perp’s sudden burst of contributions couldn’t have been coming from him as he hadn’t had a burst of anything for years. The manager knew it had to be coming from me.
I was happy about that but, curious person that I am, I asked why, if he knew that, he hadn’t said anything - either to the Perp or to me.
His answer was elucidating - and it came in three parts:
He wasn’t going to take action if he didn’t have to. It was too much of a hassle.
He assumed that I was okay with what was going on.
It never occurred to him that I might be unaware…or so he said. (We’re back to the bullshit.)
…because the only real answer was Number 1. He wasn’t going to take action if he didn’t have to.
But, since I had brought the issue in - and, he later told me, there had been a number of his colleagues commenting on the fact that the Perp had a ‘playmate’ (I’m not joking) who ‘didn’t seem to know the rules of the game.’ Ultimately, he was more concerned that the situation had the potential to make him look bad - irrespective of the Perp.
Or the fact that it was me, for that matter.
The result was that there was a quick ‘restructuring’ that moved my solid line reporting relationship to the Perp’s manager with an official ‘dotted line’ relationship to the Managing Director.
As for the Perp? He decided it was time to retire from the company and become a consultant.
Perp Story Number 2
Things were changing in the industry and a decision was made to expand the work I was doing and make it into a ‘function.’ That’s when they brought in the Sweet-Talker.
This guy, a year younger than I, made everyone promises that I knew would never be able to be kept. From productivity increases and expense reductions to getting ‘free money’ for retraining from the State (“Really. It will be no problem at all!”), this guy had everyone bamboozled.
Except me. Because I have a very low threshold for bullshit.
(Of note: I grew up in Beverly Hills where bullshit was the order of the day - from the kids to the parents to too many of the teachers to the entertainment industry that overlaid it all.)
Keep in mind, I had just recently come off of Perp 1 and his lies. I knew this new guy was for the birds - but, man, could he talk.
And he was pretty. And dressed better than any of the managers or executives in the company. (One good outcome was that his presence raised the sartorial bar among the executives.)
But it was that bit about the ‘free money’ that did it.
There comes a point when you know you can’t argue anymore. When putting your case forward - even though you know it’s true and what you’re saying is for the good of the enterprise - not only doesn’t work, but it works against you.
That’s what happened with Perp 2’s ‘free money’ sweet talk.
I argued. I explained. I presented data. I spoke with managers - and the Unions - about what they saw as the risks.
No one listened. No one wanted to know. It was ‘free money.’ (There’s no such thing).
Only my eventual silence allowed the Perp to tell management that I was now in agreement with him…behind my back.
So, the Perp sweet-talked and the company took a multi-million dollar contract for training money from the State. (Spoiler Alert: We gave it all back. We had to.)
As part of his case, he argued that there needed to be a department to oversee all the new, expanded training that was going to be offered. That it needed to track the people, the numbers, the organizational dynamics - all in one (does this sound familiar? see above) - and that he, of course, was the right person to head it up.
So he got promoted over me. And, just like Perp 1, he told me it was for my own good.
None of his reasons is worth repeating - because they were all bullshit. He knew it. I knew it.
I have to admit, I wasn’t a very good direct report for him. I scaled down my contribution to the bare minimum of what I was expected to do. I didn’t argue - why bother? - and when I saw the Managing Director, if he asked me how things were going, I’d tell him to talk with the Perp.
I wasn’t going to contribute to what I knew was going to be a raging failure. And it was.
Sadly, that’s how I got my promotion. Perp 2 realized not long into the contract that what I had told him and the management team was coming true…so he got out.
He became a consultant with one of the premier global management consulting firms. (Do you see a trend here?)
I closed out the contract as quickly as I could in as collaborative way as I could given that the State could have killed our opportunities for future defense contracts from the Federal Government.
And that set me off on the next few years, with a number of other promotions and a trajectory into a career that has suited me well for decades…mostly because there’s been no bullshit.
Lessons Learned - Women, Socialization and Corporate Culture
Ever since Susan Fowler wrote her brilliant and eye-opening blog post about her year at Uber…beginning the end of its Founder/CEO’s time there…there’s been a (slightly) more objective view of what really happens to women in organizations.
Especially talented, capable women.
They’re beaten down or they’re cheated. They’re rarely valued for the contributions they provide - and the few who are are paraded like some kind of exotic animal that has beaten the Darwinian evolutionary odds.
That’s bullshit - and we know it. But it’s true.
I had so hoped that as time went on we would see a change in the view of women’s contributions in organizations - and to a certain extent we have - but not enough. Never enough.
Part of the problem is us - and that’s the only part we own, can do anything about and which I’ll talk about here. (I’ll take on other aspects of how to address the problems in later posts.) For example,
Women are socialized to look for interacting, integrative facts, opportunities and threats. That’s why we’re so good at collaboration. We know that solutions based on more information are better than uni-directional approaches.
Men like to make their own decisions.
We aren’t good at taking credit - up front and on a continuous basis - for our work. We use “we” more than “I.” We talk about what “the team has done” instead of what “I have done.” We share the credit - deserved or not.
Men give themselves credit - and when they don’t (like on sports teams), it’s always understood that the man who is speaking is the one who must deserve the credit…otherwise, he wouldn’t be the one talking.
When women argue, men stop listening - so we stop arguing instead of finding alternative approaches to getting our point across.
Women are willing to take far more abuse for a far longer time - because we’re convinced that somehow, someday, it will get better. It doesn't.
So, starting now, take a hard, objective look at your work environment. Look at who you’re reporting to. Look at the credit you’re receiving for your contribution. Look at whether you’re valued - and that it’s not just in words, but in measurable criteria…like promotions, bonuses, salary increases, perks or any other measure your organization has to offer.
Look at all of that as if you were giving your very best friend advice - because that’s what you have to be to yourself. Your very best friend.
Then decide on the actions you want to take - whether to give your current organization another chance or whether to take your capabilities elsewhere…like the competition…and let them treat you like the valued contributor you are.
More than anything, don’t take the bullshit or believe the bullshit anymore. You don’t deserve it.