Monday, May 23, 2005

MS Biz--May Article

Guilt: A Southern Fried Epidemic
by Natalie West Criss
Assistant Editor
Metro Business Chronicle

It is a basic fact of life that men and women behave differently, but no place is this more complicated than the office where our Southern-influenced feminine socialization and modern expectations collide. When is “demure” manipulative? At what point does “assertive” become “bitchy”? Exactly how nice is too nice? Finding that line of demarcation and navigating adjacent gray areas can affect how successful we are in achieving our career goals.

I just started reading a book by Lois P. Frankel, PhD., called Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers. The premise of the book is clear and its contents somewhat predictable, but there is something innately disturbing about reading a list of errors aimed at poking holes in one’s comfort zone. More than anything, it has confirmed my suspicions about my own shortcomings and highlighted just how common these are.

Although she doesn’t address it directly, most of the mistakes Dr. Frankel highlights can be attributed to guilt. Guilt breeds insecurity. Insecurity begets indecision. Indecision is deadly to success. In the game of business strategy (and it is a game), guilt makes losers out of potential champions and whiners out of would-be winners.

We often joke that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission, but we typically do not practice this at the office. When it comes to appropriate expenditures, time-constraints, ethical business favors and personal commitments, we “just want to be sure.” We unnecessarily ask permission, work longer hours, apologize too quickly, pad declarative or critical statements, make self-deprecating remarks, overextend ourselves, and don’t take credit for our successes. Heaven forbid that we inconvenience, offend or disappoint anyone. It might make us or someone else feel bad.

The professional women I know in the Metro have no problems getting their Via Spigas in doors, are not plagued by an inability to perform and easily gain the respect and trust of colleagues. At some point in our careers, we must transition from that dependable girl Friday to elite woman executive who guides the company. When that time comes, guilt can cause even the most confident, secure, poised, prepared woman to pause. And she who hesitates…

I have a local friend with a long history in sales. She gives a solid presentation, seems assertive, looks fantastic, follows through, connects well with people and maintains strong relationships. Sounds perfect, right? Her sales have stagnated, because she is uncomfortable asking for money. Instead, she believes that if the rest of her presentation is strong enough, the sale will close itself (which it sometimes does, sometimes doesn’t, hence the plateau.). Somehow, putting a potential client on the spot and pushing for commitment seems wrong to her. This is inaction rooted in guilt.

Another Jackson businesswoman I know possesses many of the same qualities. However, she likens closing a sale to going in for the kill, even once comparing her ability to recognize closing cues as “the smell of blood in the water.” Now, she gets it. She plays the game and knows how to win it ethically and unapologetically. There is nothing wrong with that.

In what is still largely a man’s world, guilt is predominantly a woman’s issue. Due in part to our Southern conditioning and our unrealistic expectations to be everything to everyone while attempting to have it all, we set ourselves up for failure, disappointment and, yes, more guilt. Fortunately, reprioritizing, reorganizing and reassessing internal goals and motivation easily break this cycle. Changing the way one views herself externally in the workplace marks the difference between consistent Team Player and invaluable Team Leader.

Still, some women refuse to even acknowledge that there is a game, not because they don’t know how to utilize appropriate strategy, but because they view engaging in office politics, strategic jockeying and calculated confrontation as manipulative and, therefore, wrong. As bastions of male subordinates sail through the ranks ahead of them, these women hamper their careers by limiting themselves within boundaries that they themselves created.

It is understandable that many who remain in subordinate positions despite having done everything right feel victimized by discrimination. While I don’t dispute that the glass ceiling exists, I do think it is smudged with the nose prints of aspiring female executives who have locked themselves out of the party.
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Copyright Natalie West Criss 2005

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