Saturday, August 9, 2008

Uncomfortably Nice - Marmie's Girls

Have you ever had a boss who seems uncomfortably nice? Does she think you need to change? Is this a situation unique to women because of their management style?
I am a new manager working for the first time in an all-female office. For years, I have worked in the technical world and have developed a certain way of behaving toward my managers. Now for the first time, I don’t know how to behave. I am constantly getting “in trouble” because of my communication style. I think my style came out of assimilating to the male technical world, and I don’t any other way. Working in a “girly office” has been difficult for me to adapt to because I feel like I am breaking all the rules of professional conduct. It is extremely uncomfortable sometimes.

Emails are returned with excessive thank yous, and you’re welcomes, and Replies To All. Men I have worked with don’t do this. I write short, to the point emails. I am careful about my tone, but don’t hesitate to be direct. In this office, long wordy emails are the norm. When someone has surgery, we make casseroles for the person who is out. In short, we show that we care, often to the detriment of ourselves and our own families. Keeping up the effort to be so extremely nice is exhausting.

Check out the Microsoft link to email etiquette rules. Rule #2 specifically says, “Keep messages brief and to the point. Just because your writing is grammatically correct does not mean that it has to be long. Nothing is more frustrating than wading through an e-mail message that is twice as long as necessary. Concentrate on one subject per message whenever possible.” Ladies, we are not being mean by being short and to the point.

If you have ever read the book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, my boss reminds me of the mother character, Mrs. March (aka Marmie) to her daughters. Marmie lets her daughters be themselves but doesn’t hesitate to give moral advice to her girls to help them correct their moral flaws. What seems like a friendly suggestion is really a command. At my office, compliance with the boss’s polite suggestion is necessary if you want to advance in the organization. The parallel here is that the daughters must correct their flaws in order to achieve their ultimate roles in life: mothers, wives, sisters, and citizens.

We managers in the office must work out our personal flaws in order to become better managers.

A questions that my boss asked me in the initial interview was, "how do I feel about constructive criticism?" I know it’s all in an effort to guide us to being the best work family possible. What if I don’t want to be a family at work? What if I just want to do my work and go home without having to play the role of the boss’s daughter?

The boss seems like mom and we are her daughters. When we have been bad girls, we get the cold shoulder for a short while but she’s always right back with a big smile and a hearty good morning. I am sure this is because of her moral sense of this being the right thing to do. It is nice to have forgiveness, but it is tiring and uncomfortable to not have direct confrontation about what is not going right.

Marmie too was indirect. As Wikipedia describes, she “engages in charitable works and attempts to guide her girls' morals and shape their characters, usually through experiments. She confesses to Jo after her big fight with Amy that she has a temper as bad and volatile as Jo's own, but has learned to control it to avoid hurting herself and her loved ones.”

Am I playing the unfeminine Jo role here? Will I arrive at the higher level of Marmee-type consciousness in my job? What if I like myself the way I am? I would like to just be accepted with all my "flaws."

1 comment:

Peg said...


Interesting that you bring this up - I too have had this issue, surprisingly to the detriment of a job in which I loved the work.

I worked for a company owned by women, who actively sought to employ women - which I thought was great! My position was Director of Operations and was part of the senior management team.

The thing I started having issues with (being like you brought up in IT and Finance, working with men and communicating in a "business like" fashion) was all the sterotypical and not at all flatttering "girlie-ness" of it all...I loved that we had a beautiful workspace, but I hated when my pricipals blatantly flirted with clients and business partners. I loved the freedom of working with all women but had a distain with all the garbage that seemed to come with it - the favoritism, the "frenemys", the back biting when someone perceived me moving up in favor. It was more intense in an all female enviroment. Worse the employees were encouraged to go to the principals directly, so my authority was undermined daily by underlings who did not have the experience but wanted so much to be considered important and valuable - All hat, no cowboy.

Interestingly enough, things got worse when the partners brought in another partner who was a man, was used to working with men (techs and installers) and would then deal with the women in the office the way he knew how - all extensions on how he dealt with his spouse, to his own admission - "you women" comments or "can't you girls all get along" when I brought up an issue with an employee that I felt needed to be addressed.

Worse than that, the other two owners, women who I liked very much had no idea how ineffective management skills could affect their business. I couldn't do my job because I was incapable of undoing all the knowledge I had of what was right and wrong of effective business management. So I left - and I was seriously depressed because the work, the business that they were running was my sweet spot, was what I knew and not alot of companies were doing what they were trying to do.

I don't know if the "Jo" role applies but I am pretty sure that balance is the key - and that's what I took away from the experience. If I go back and work for someone else, I will have the strength of business knowledge but might allow myself a good smelling candle or personal touches making sure my office is welcoming. I will save the power suits for the boardroom, but dress and feel free to be a woman in the workplace in my professional dress habits. I will show kindness to my co-workers and staff but walk the talk on my commitments and deliverables and strive to be a role model for the women coming up the ladder. Lastly, I believe that men and women need each other in the workplace and will make sure that either in my company or if I go to work for another company, the headcount is more evenly distributed. If that's at all possible.