A 2011 article titled "Quit Being So Nice" opens with this quote:
Men are taught to be right.
Women are taught to be nice.
A 2017 article opens with the same idea as this quote, but expands on the idea of likeability of men versus women in the workplace by summarizing a study done by professors in 3 European business schools.
For others to see women as confident and influential at work, they needed to be liked and competent. For men, competence was the only factor. The authors defined "likeability" as "pro-social traits - such as helpfulness and kindness".
Why am I even bringing this up? After nearly 5 months of radio silence on this side of the blog (sorry! I've been busy with EPICODE and RD exam tutoring), I've developed quite the list of blog topics on my notepad.
The idea of social aspects in the workplace as come up again and again through some particularly difficult situations in the past few months. Some flew up out of nowhere, catching me off guard and really setting me into a tailspin. Others, like this one, are always bubbling beneath the surface.
In this post, I'll touch on 2 topics:
Last month, I had the opportunity to reconnect with some girlfriends from my masters program, when I was back in town attending a conference. Over dinner, we described our jobs and workplaces, and this idea of likeability came up.
Dealing with unprofessional social talk
Surprisingly, we got into the topic when first talking about younger colleagues. Fresh-out-of-undergrad newbies, if you will, and the difference even a few years in your 20's makes.
A friend of mine recounted how her attempts to be nice to a new (younger) colleague seemed to be the key in opening up the floodgates of social banter and gossip. When I say "nice", I mean just the other side of "neutral" - you know - showing some interest in the fact the other person exists and is talking to you.
She asked us - how do you deal with this? Do you engage in the conversation, even though it feels unprofessional? Do you sit this colleague down and share the "rules of workplace" that no one ever taught you? Do you ignore them from now on?
With each of us in different roles and with different personalities, we all had a slightly different take. But all perspectives boiled down to a few key points:
Adding small talk to your repertoire
On the flip side of this issue is a common issue for the more socially-challenged individuals (like me! and several of my friends at dinner that night).
In college and residency, I had professors and supervisors poke fun at me for being organized or driven - which is ridiculous - but in the moment, being the subject of that shaming and bullying, it doesn't feel ridiculous.
For example, after submitting a report with organized, complete, and linked formatting, a superior joked in a meeting of my peers "that if you want to go over the top, you could try the Bailey way". The tone, the attitude, the awkward laughs and side glances did not make me feel like this was a compliment.
I'm not going to dive-in to theories on why people feel the need for this type of shaming, but if you've experienced this before, know that you're not alone.
Needless to say, being a group of women in academia with several degrees each, I was not the only one at dinner with experiences like these. No matter how far we think we had come, it was clear from our conversations that we still struggled with how to behave in the workplace so that we would avoid this type of bullying.
For example, it drives you crazy that your Wednesday morning meetings always start late, are plagued with off-topic discussion, and that nothing discussed ever gets done. Your knee-jerk solution might be to take charge of the time-keeping at the meeting, keep everyone on task, and assign action items to follow-up on at the next meeting. But without a little social maneuvering, chances are most of your colleagues will meet you with resistance - not because they don't want to reach the same goals as you - but because they don't feel included, respected, or whatever else emotions they tie up with their work.
Adding small talk to your professional toolbox will help smooth over some rough edges and make your interpersonal communications go a little better.
The thing to remember is that small talk can be one-sided.
I know what you're thinking, "I hate small talk!", or "It's a waste of time!" All you need to do is put on the facade of small talk. It's like how you make the best first impression - let the other person talk about themselves!
All you have to do is walk in to your meeting, and ask "How was your weekend?", "Any plans for the weekend?", or follow-up on items you've discussed before. They answer, and you say "Wow, that sounds like fun!"
Most people won't even reciprocate and ask you how your weekend was. But if they do, just have a canned response ready - "Oh, nothing much". If you feel comfortable sharing more, like "I'm running a 5K" or something else that remains professional, then that's fine! You want to avoid "Oh, I have 2 Tinder dates that I'm really nervous about - you know how it is dating...I just can't decide what to wear...".
Do you have other strategies for improving interpersonal communications and perceptions at work? Leave a comment!