I heard a raised voice saying, “That may be your experience but it’s going to be different for me!” and a young woman nearly ran over me as she stormed out of Anne’s office. Poking my head in the door I asked Anne, “What was that about?”
Anne’s expression changed to one of disappointment as she invited me in.
“Chelsey is not very happy today,” Anne began. She came to ask my advice and didn’t like what she heard.
“First of all, she didn’t really want advice, she came to vent about her boss. She refers to him disdainfully as an “old white man” and she is convinced that he is preventing her from advancing.
“I listened to her story, and I can see how frustrated she is. I don’t know her boss and my observations are based strictly on her input. According to Chelsea, he won’t listen to her ideas and won’t let her try anything new; if she speaks up in a meeting, he doesn’t acknowledge her contribution and moves on as soon as she stops talking.”
I couldn’t help but empathize with Chelsey and exclaimed, “Wow, that sounds awfully disrespectful, no wonder she is angry! What did you suggest?”
Anne smiled and went on, “You know I don’t offer unsolicited advice. Before I made any comments, I asked for her permission – I have some experience I can share; would you be interested in hearing it?”
“Sometimes people say “No” and I keep my comments to myself.
“Chelsea agreed by saying, well snorting actually, “Of course, I want to hear what you have to say, why do you think I am here?”
“I asked her for some additional detail, specifically about how she approaches her boss – timing, tone of voice, volume, facial expression. To her credit, Chelsea responded by roll playing a conversation she had with her boss recently.
“It was just as I imagined, she is aggressive, belligerent and generally unpleasant. She curls her lip, speaks loudly and narrows her eyes; at one point, she even held her finger up in my face!
“While I don’t remember raising my finger, I do remember behaving this way in my own early years. In those days, I was a little rough around the edges.
"There were no senior women to mentor me and I pretty much learned everything the hard way.
“I told Chelsea about my own experience. About being so frustrated with my boss who was the owner of the company. I could see so many things that were wrong with the way the company operated, and I was vocal about it. When it looked like no one was listening, I spoke louder, slower and more aggressively.
“It didn’t take long before I was being excluded from meetings. There even came a day when I was asked to send one of my direct reports. I was being pushed onto the sideline and eventually I left because it was clear I was not a good fit.
“What did I learn? Over time, I came to appreciate that the tail does not wag the dog… Oh, sorry Edna do you know what I mean when I say that?
I shook my head, I have heard it before, but I don’t know what it means.
“It’s an idiom. It means that a single individual or small group of lower-ranked people is not permitted to control the whole organization in the same way that the tail is a small part of most dogs, and without the dog powering the tail, it would not wag.
“In that organization as in most (despite what Simon Sinek would say), I was a small player – I was the tail. I had no responsibility, no accountability and certainly no authority in the areas I was commenting on, and the dog, my boss, the owner of the company, was ignoring me.
“Over time, I learned that I was much more likely to succeed when I engaged with the decision-makers in a collegial, considerate way. When I invested in the relationship, understanding the profile of the decision-maker and what was important to them.
“And, yes, mostly they were men but not always.
“I came to accept that I would have to change my approach. So, I built up my patience muscle, mastered my tone of voice, and invested time in understanding the situation fully before I scheduled time to present my ideas in a constructive manner. In essence, I established relationships that were built on mutual respect and collaboration. My credibility grew and I became a better team player and a much better leader!
“That is what I shared with Chelsey. And you heard her reaction.
"Things may be different for her; there may be people in positions of authority who like being spoken to as if they were the enemy, who enjoy listening to their junior people criticizing them, but I have not met any of them.
“I am not suggesting that Chelsey’s boss is faultless; he may be a toxic leader and maybe she should leave. Before giving up, I hope she tries a different approach though.
“I know she was angry when she left and can only hope that when she cools off, she will consider her options.
“What would you do if she reported to you?” I asked Anne. Again, she smiled as she suggested that would be a topic for another day.
I would be very interested in knowing what YOU would do? Your comments are always welcome!