Managing Up: People-Pleasing Female Edition
February 2, 2017 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Hi, MeFites! I'm a career executive in my late twenties (niche creative industry), and, perhaps this realization has come too late, but I think I'm Doing It Wrong. Please help.

For context: I'm a WOC in my late-twenties who works at a creative startup run by a few middle-aged white men in a big, coastal city. I come from a poor working class background and got a scholarship to a fancy school (which is what put me on their radar). As one of the earliest hires at the company, I essentially started my department, and have risen quite quickly in the ranks (with a nice salary to boot). Sounds great, right?

So, here's my issue: While I was ostensibly promoted due to the fact that I work hard and know my shit (I would hope), I'm starting to realize that I'm not really taken seriously or respected in this new role.

I'm perhaps seen as a workhorse; I do the things at the company that no one else wants to do. However, my strategic recommendations are constantly ignored or overlooked, and then I'm inevitably blamed when the tactic we ultimately take fails somehow, despite my suggestions to do something different (or completely opposite). (The result? I'm left rushing and killing myself to get something done/changed/etc. to their satisfaction, and 99% of time the issue could have been avoided).

This happened as recently as yesterday (has happened several times over), and it led to so much frustration on my part that I'm ready to walk out. I'm beginning to think I was promoted so I'd be more incentivized to put up with the disorganization and politics of the place, and continue to do work that wins them recognition -- but not because anyone actually cares what I think. (Note: My title is pretty senior/executive, and I now run a department. "Run.")

All the same, I know I'm not totally blameless in this. I need to know how to communicate more effectively, manage up, be more assertive when I see something that isn't right, etc. I've tried to do these things while getting the same results and I'm realizing that maybe I just need some actual example (or book, or manual, or training workshop) on how to do this! (Note that I also manage a few people, so I'm sure seeing me be so totally ineffective isn't really helping with their confidence in me...)

Complications ensue: I'm pretty sensitive, in therapy, and on medication, so there are existing vulnerabilities that I'm trying to work through. Essentially, I'm trying to be less transparent/more robotic at work, so I can deal with inevitable disappointment, failure, etc. in a calm, collected, and professional manner. I'm by no means a basketcase, but my current coping mechanisms (uh, calling my mom, taking early lunches, zoning out) aren't really effective/helping my (non -existent??) image as a leader.

I think at this point -- at this company -- the damage is done; I'm no longer happy at work, and I'm ready to move on. But while I search for new opportunities, I still need to learn how to manage up, and, I'm sure, prepare for similar setbacks and issues in any future jobs. I also want to learn how to be seen as a leader -- a badass woman who knows her shit and is respected in her industry.

I know this was a lot, but if anyone has any advice for me...that would be great!
posted by themaskedwonder to Work & Money (13 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if it would be helpful for you to get yourself a mentor? Finding another WOC, in your industry, who is where you would like to be in 10 or 20 years' time might help you to work out new strategies for 'managing up' and getting the recognition you deserve. I imagine that the issues you face will be nuanced, varied and on-going, so having someone who can guide you over the long term could be really handy. And remember that most people LOVE being helpful, so I would guess that if you could find the right person it could be an incredibly rewarding relationship for both of you.

Good luck!
posted by matthew.alexander at 8:04 AM on February 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yes, mentor, get one - you're in an environment where a lot of the things you learned growing up/at school are not necessarily relevant or true (given your background as describd). The rules are simply different. So you need somebody to help you learn what you don't know and whilst calling your mother may get you moral support she probably can't help with the problem at hand.

And also, time/experience. My approach to most things now is fundamentally different from what it was even 3-4 years ago. This includes that I find it much easier to practice what I would call professional detachment, that I am much better at picking my battles and at covering my own backside.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:16 AM on February 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

"Nice girls don't get the corner office" by Lois P Frankel.
posted by emilyw at 8:27 AM on February 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

After graduating and before starting my career at Big Tech Male Dominated Company I spent several sessions with my therapist working on what being affirmed means, how to put boundaries and express needs. It was the smartest thing I did that year... last week my boss told me what he liked about me, in addition to my professionalism and enthusiasm, was how present and affirmed I was -and I am a woman in my late twenties with a disability.
I think being affirmed is an effort we must make gradually and pervasively, like for example requesting to finish your sentence to someone who interrupts you. You have to practice everyday on small and less small things so you get comfortable being affirmed and more present in your workplace.
You asked for ressources, here were / are mine :
- therapy (as mentionned above)
- Reading and discussing with my therapist about non-violent communication (very helpful to see how speaking up is not an act of agressivity, au contraire!)
- List things / situations where I could be more assertive and "rehearse" them before putting them in practice
- Ask metafilter for input ;) I actually wrote a question about a coworker looking at my cleavage, 30 AskMeFi answers later I told said coworker to stop and felt I gained even more respect & trust from my colleagues.
Good luck! It is not impossible and makes life 200% better.
posted by Ifite at 8:34 AM on February 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

Hardball for Women.

Not very progressive.
Very illuminating.

Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In was also helpful to me.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:34 AM on February 2, 2017

Is there a professional association especially for women of color that you could join? I think it would be great to have a mentor, but I'm thinking that networking/talking with a wide variety of WOC, especially in your industry and related industries, might be helpful. Also reading articles (such as this one), and books by WOC, and following some Twitter and LinkedIn feeds.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:35 AM on February 2, 2017

A couple of thoughts, one general, and one specific:

First, it's easy to get into blaming yourself -- if you were managing the situation better, things wouldn't be going badly. Yes, you can always do better, but there are some situations and some people where you just can't win, and internalizing the blame for bad outcomes that you couldn't have changed will drive you nuts. Do the best job you can managing difficult people, but remember that sometimes, it's not you, it's them. (I just changed jobs from a completely toxic workplace that I was pretty successful in navigating to what seems to be a group of the nicest people I've ever met, and I'm still shocked by how hard it was for me to see how bad the old place was until I left. I knew it was bad, but I didn't really feel how unreasonably bad.)

Second, and more specifically, this sentence? "However, my strategic recommendations are constantly ignored or overlooked, and then I'm inevitably blamed when the tactic we ultimately take fails somehow, despite my suggestions to do something different (or completely opposite)." Makes it sound like you need to do more communicating through casual emails summarizing the planning process: things like "So, my takeaway from today's meeting is that while I suggested A, Joe and Frank ultimately determined that B would be a better idea, and to carry out B, I'm going to do C-F. I'm getting started on C right now!" If you do it gracefully, it doesn't look like you're being passive-aggressive, just as if you're being organized about planning, but it makes it a lot harder for them to turn failures back on you when B turned out to be a stupid idea.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:58 AM on February 2, 2017 [10 favorites] strategic recommendations are constantly ignored or overlooked, and then I'm inevitably blamed when the tactic we ultimately take fails somehow, despite my suggestions to do something different (or completely opposite).

There are many good suggestions in this thread -- finding mentors and/or getting hooked up with professional organizations sound to me like particularly good strategies. One other possibility to consider: it sounds to me like you are taking responsibility for some problems that are not under your control. It sounds to me like the people you're working for kind of suck as managers. I think it would help to take that as a given and not make it your fault for not "handling" them better -- don't internalize the idea that there's something wrong with you! Letting go of that might relieve a lot of stress while you put together your exit plan. This scapegoating thing in particular does not sound to me like something that would happen in a healthy organization -- it sounds like the face-saving tactic of an inexperienced or insecure manager. That is not your fault and (unfortunately), you cannot "manage up" it away.

Some phrases you could use (inside your own head) that might help: "That's not under my control." "That wouldn't have been my choice, but I'll do my best with it." "That's not a fair way to treat me, and I'm really glad I'm working on my exit plan." "I am weirdly grateful for the opportunity to see these management mistakes close-up so that (1) when I'm in a leadership role, I'll know not to make the same mistakes, and (2) I'll be better able to appreciate good management and recognize bad management when I see it in the future." "These bosses have given me some great opportunities, but they've also got some serious weaknesses. I'm grateful for the former, and I look forward to leaving the latter behind when I move on to my next big thing."
posted by ourobouros at 9:24 AM on February 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Seconding everything here, especially the part about finding a mentor and/or a peer group. But might not be possible to parse what parts of the stuff that sucks are your responsibility and what parts are due to sexism / racism / general bullshit while you're still in the situation. Yes start doing that work now, but remember that it's a process and you're not supposed to have it all figured out immediately. It really might not be you at all. That doesn't mean there aren't tactics you can adopt to make bulshit easier to deal with in the future (a la LizardBreath's rec), but that's different from blaming yourself for not instinctually being able to navigate an uneven playing field. It actually sounds like you've done that pretty well.

I wish I could recommend more books for you, but the ones I'm familiar with are all written for the white experience (and usually for white men), which is not always that helpful when it turns out you have to play by different rules.

Deeeeefinitely get a mastermind group. And if you can't find one, start one, and start recruiting.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:14 AM on February 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Two things:

My title is pretty senior/executive, and I now run a department. "Run."

1. Leadership is not a title or position, it's a purposeful mindset.

also want to learn how to be seen as a leader -- a badass woman who knows her shit

2. You ARE being a leader. 1.) workhorse 2.) looking out for the company's best interests 3.) Strategic planning and making recommendations, be they ignored or overlooked 4.) Problem-solving and getting results
posted by mountainblue at 11:14 AM on February 2, 2017

I can relate almost exactly to what you are going through, although it was several jobs ago. I literally built someone else's company up for them to where now they are financially independent. At the time, they were really struggling. By mastering paperwork and writing processes that (hopefully) were used, I could pretty much get things ticking over as long as everything was up to date. Then it hit me, there were lots of places I could not go even though I had mastered everything they could not bother to know.

That's a very difficult feeling because it can turn into resentment easily. You have to fight that urge and look at what you have brought to the table, what your stake actually is in the future of the company, and, whether the process actually benefits from the assistance that you provide it. Not knowing your title, I imagine you are running the bid management team but you are not directly selling.

By not directly selling, you have no way of backing up your suggestions with research that shows going X way is important. You supported these guys to make sales in the beginning they could actually deliver on, now they have one or two large clients and the budget to venture for new work but obviously have fallen for the trap of believing that creative people can have good ideas all the time. It's not a sick system but one that seemingly relies on seeking the biggest money spinner possible with little regard for ability to win the bids. If you can't sell or don't want to sell, before you go it is very important for you to go back to the last 50 to 70 proposals you created and get as much feedback as you can.

Don't bother trying to sell, listen for why you lost, what was their impression of the sales team and the pitch, what information did not make sense in the final written proposal. Ask them about the solution they bought by asking about must-haves and any challenges these have thrown up; then, seek out how they raise awareness of bid opportunities and how you can be made aware because you are interested in trying again with a better, more accurate solution if it were possible.

I am guessing but it sounds like the company is rife with salespeople who don't follow up and try to sell again. You could gently ask your bosses about a commission number if you brought in sales. Talk about how you are discovering your creativity by creating original approaches to what your department does and would there be a commission if sales resulted from your activity? Put 20% on whatever they tell you and negotiate the hell out of it, you could provide an incentive to your staff to become more autonomous in managing processes which will leave you alone to do calls and is a good way to see staff rise/fall on their own.

Maybe you'll get one new customer out of fifty for what your company sells and the rest of the information may be worthless to them. Use that information to make the job that will make you happy.
posted by parmanparman at 3:43 PM on February 2, 2017

Time helps a lot. You're a badass but still early in your career, and it's always hardest the first time.
Mentors are great, but even better I've found is a solid network of peers at other companies. Are you likely to find many POC women? No, but you'll probably find that many of your challenges are not unique to your race or gender. It's not the same as having peers who are fellow woc I'm sure but it still helps a lot in navigating the situations.
I've gotten a ton of mileage from executive / life coaches. You might even see if your employer will pay for one, many startups do for new execs. They can teach you many directed leadership skills that therapists don't really focus on.
Finally, yes, your job is probably to some extent to eat shit. Becoming an executive isn't always about getting more authority, instead, you have more constituents to please between your bosses and your team. It's a hard job. I wish someone had been more honest with me about the downsides when I first took an executive role. It gets easier with practice and experience, but there's never any guarantee they'll listen to you no matter how right you are. Sometimes the job is just to patch over the issues and keep the team running.
Good luck. You've clearly got a ton of talent to be where you are. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
posted by ch1x0r at 3:48 PM on February 2, 2017

I see this sometimes, and it seems disproportionately women, but that's just my anecdotal gut feeling. You don't make strategic recommendations and whatnot, or disagree with something once in a meeting and then give up when you 'lose' the discussion. You fight, overtly and covertly, for what you believe in. You make it no secret what you want. Without shit talking your bosses and peers to your subordinates - you shouldn't do that - you make it crystal clear to THOSE people. Sometimes it's a slow-burning cold war that lasts months or years.

When you lose, you lose, but the idea of blaming you for the stupid idea should be too ludicrous to even be possible. And yeah, you might get blamed for sabotaging, but then they learn to listen to you and convince you it's the right thing to do instead of just telling. Unless they like to get sabotaged.

I never said that, if anyone asks.
posted by ctmf at 9:25 PM on February 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older My mom died yesterday   |   Owning vs Renting – How did you decide and... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.