QWould you advise a young woman to socialize with her work colleagues?

answered April 28th, 2011 by Dr.Nancy McInerney-Lacombe
A

This is such a great question and in my experience it is a real dilemma.

 

In the early days of my career – early to late 20’s – a small group of women (peers) formed in the company where I was working. We knew everything about each other – truly – from what we liked for breakfast, any angst with our jobs and even the broken hearts we experienced. We were fiercely protective of each other and all worked hard to support each other. We have remained lifelong friends. In one case, when a very senior woman made fun of one of my pals at a very public gathering regarding a rumoured affair with one of the senior executives, I asked to speak to her privately the next day. Not knowing what the meeting was about, she left the door open. I closed it. To say she was speechless is not an overstatement. She was absolutely floored when I told her that her comments were not appropriate and supported the old thinking that women don’t support each other. It could have been a very career limiting move but she took it very well and did not retaliate- as far as I know.

 

As I moved into more senior roles, I was very conscious of boundaries/limits. In most cases, I was always friendly and happy to joke with the gang but I left it there. With my own team, I was happy to help with family crises, sort out work schedules to accommodate their life and was fiercely protective of their reputations within the organization. I always tried to profile them to the people that counted but to go out for drinks after work – not of interest to me. On the rare occasions, when I did join in – sometimes you can’t avoid it- it was for a short time. Similarly, with my peers, I kept it mostly professional. With my bosses, it was on a reciprocal basis. There again it was not for a blowout night of poker. It was dinner with their wives/partners –  very social but controlled. You get my drift.

 

Upon reflection, maybe I should have been less standoffish but it was about trust – not professional trust but sheer gut trust – the kind you have with your closest friends and family. I had seen it too many times – insinuations made by people about others in an inappropriate and career limiting way when senior people were around. I guess some people feel that if they bring someone down, it makes them look better. I always hoped it was the opposite and when I could I would jokingly refute the statement.

 

At this point, you are probably thinking I am paranoid. Interestingly, however, my research into “Championing Tough Issues on Boards and within Senior Management Teams,” showed that women, for the most part, were very clear that they didn’t care to go out for drinks with the boys after the board or other meeting. They were not there to make friends. For them, it was about the business and only about the business. Women did not use networks like men do. Men relied very heavily on off-line discussions, when they were playing golf, squash or whatever. Often before they addressed the board with a tough issue, they ran it past a few of their cronies. Women did not rely on off-line discussions to any great extent. There is lots of research out there that addresses the difficulties for women in developing strong networks within their organizations and as a result they either appear or are less effective than their male colleagues that do use their networks very effectively. Hermina Ibarra at Harvard has done some excellent work in this area.

 

In a nutshell, my advice is to tread carefully. Follow your good judgement as to who you can trust and how open you want to be. Women taking part in my research were very good at using their mindfulness to read the room. They made a point of assessing the personal agendas of their colleagues to position their arguments. Just make sure you know with whom you are dealing.

 

Hope this helps,

 

Nancy

 

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