Welcome to our new monthly advice column, Now What? Each month, our columnist Tori will unpack a different career dilemma from our community and she’ll bring on a few friendly faces from her network to contribute their wisdom too.
Tori Lazar is a creative leadership coach and business consultant for purpose-driven entrepreneurs, executives, and brands. She recently founded the creative leadership coaching studio, How to Fck Up Well. She also serves as an advisor to Female Startup Club and Black Girl Magik. Through her work, Tori aims to destigmatize failure and redefine it as an unconventional springboard for growth.
“The favoritism is real, and I don’t feel like I’m being treated equally by my boss…now what?”
Q: "I feel like my manager doesn't like me and isn't supportive of my growth at the company despite my high performance. I'm constantly left out of the loop on information and opportunities to showcase my value or build relationships with higher-ups. And if I go around her, I'm scared of how she'll react or that my teammates will think I'm a snitch since they don't have the same experience. How do I communicate feedback and open doors to a promotion or raise without rustling feathers?"
When I first conceptualized this column, I texted about 20 of my closest women friends and colleagues and asked them to share their most pressing career dilemmas (as you might imagine, the tea was SPILLING). Despite the diversity of positions, industries, identities and lived experiences captured in this group (albeit small), their dilemmas were quite similar, and just a few key trends emerged. One of them was: women do not always support other women. Surprising? Unfortunately, for me, it wasn’t.
I’ve experienced this type of negative rivalry a lot in my career, and so have many other high-performing women I know. It’s the elephant we’ve been shamefully hiding in the corner of the room for centuries. First, it was about competing to find a mate. Now, it’s about competing for a seat at a table without much space for us. It’s exhausting. And although we may not be the root cause, we don’t always act in favor of our ultimate goal—equality.
So how do we find a path forward? I’ll be honest. It’s murky. The solution is not obvious or easy to uncover, and it’s different for everyone for many reasons. There are complicated factors at play, including personal bias and systemic issues. Patience, empathy and precision are important to foster a solution that is authentic to you while leaving room for collective growth.
Let’s get into it.
Bad news: Studies on women-on-women rivalry were almost nonexistent until the ‘80s, and there aren’t many accessible sources that analyze the varying degrees of how it impacts Black, Brown, queer and/or disabled people. Good news: I did my best to make sense of the basics because we have to start somewhere, and I enlisted some friends for proof of concept.
Women are just as likely as men to have a likability bias, and women tend to judge other women just as harshly as men. It’s usually attributed to internalized sexism and patriarchal messages that women are not as strong, competent and capable, or that work is not their rightful place. So, sometimes, we mistreat, underestimate and distance ourselves from other women to increase our power and standing among men.
Case in point from a NYC-based senior leader in finance (she chose to remain anonymous!).
“There was a manager I had about seven years into my career who was toxic on so many levels, and she didn't like me or anyone who she perceived as remotely challenging to her self-constructed image of being the only intelligent and competent person on the team. At first, her aggression was relatively private to our individual interactions, but she became more and more vocal over time. I went on a business trip with her, and we went to after-dinner drinks with some partners where everyone started talking shop. The conversation quickly turned more gossipy around the good/bad/ugly of fellow senior leaders, and she looked at me in front of all my male partners and said, ‘I think it's time we send the kids to bed.’ She ensured I was identified as the ‘other’ in the group and inferior to her. She completely undermined my position and identity as a peer to everyone around the table.”
Girls are often socialized from a young age to compete indirectly, which makes rivalries or conflicts harder to resolve and less likely to fade over time. When we speak up or articulate our views and ideas confidently, our likeability is at risk, and we’re negatively labeled, so we’ve adopted methods like gossip, sarcasm, toxic positivity and other passive-aggressive tactics to boost our status.
Case in point from Priscilla Agyemen, founder of Saddie Baddies and a senior associate at Publicis Sapient, specializing in public health.
“I was working at a nonprofit, and not only did my director not like me and made it very clear she didn't like me, but my coworkers also didn't gel with me. Slowly, through my manager’s communication and their collective actions (like planning meetings and non-work-related hangouts without me), I realized that I was the ‘other.’ To be honest, it made me feel pretty shitty. I never felt like I belonged, and naturally, I started to isolate myself, which took a toll on my mental health. I tried to force a positive outlook and fit their idea of “friendly” by making jokes and using the same language they did, but I just couldn't do it long-term. I ended up quitting less than a year in. And on my last day, it all came to a head when my manager haphazardly sent me off with a dismissive cake that read, 'Bye + Good Luck.' Funny enough, I still have a picture of it on my phone.”
Women invite and value healthy competition when it’s a fair fight for the job, project or promotion we want. This rivalry is the result of a scarcity mindset and encourages us to fight amongst ourselves, obsessively self-edit or overcompensate. We also derive a lot of our self-worth from what other people think of us (at least more than men), so we unintentionally create a heavy layer of stress to navigate each day, which isn’t good for our mental health or overall happiness, and holds us all back.
Case in point from my friend in finance, again.
“Ultimately, I had to leave her team. But it took me far too long to leave because I always felt like if I worked a little harder or was a little bit better, I would get past her exacting standards. Ironically, two months after I left her team, she was fired. While her getting fired validated that the issue wasn't me, it didn't solve the two years she spent putting me down and preventing me from building a better image with my colleagues. I’m convinced if I left her team earlier, I'd be further along in my career now.”
Conclusion: Women have adopted passive-aggressive tactics to survive because, historically, we haven’t inherited the luxury of speaking up or being direct without negative consequences. However, that doesn’t make them right. They harm the individual and collective quality of women’s lives. Now that we have more opportunities and freedoms, it’s worth rethinking our tactics and unlearning behaviors that don’t suit the future we’re striving for. And if you’re on the receiving end, it’s important to know when to call it quits instead of running yourself into the ground trying to be liked or deemed worthy by someone which is out of your control.
You need to be acutely tuned into your feelings and unconscious bias, as well as theirs, and the language you intend to use to address this head-on.
Use these prompts so you can act effectively and confidently:
“How does being unfairly treated make me feel?” Name your feelings and how they form in your mind and body, or thoughts and actions. My friend Priscilla felt “othered” and self-isolated by eating lunch alone. Maybe your body temperature rises in meetings with this person, and the tone of your voice changes. Do your best to identify when or how you learned these behaviors to cope with uncomfortable environments and relationships.
“What are my preconceived ideas about who this person is? How would I currently describe them to a friend?” Write down a few adjectives or short descriptions. Now, put yourself in their shoes and, for each adjective or description, imagine one potential reason why they behave this way and one potential reason why you may be a threat to them. The goal is not to create excuses for them. When we practice empathy for our “foes,” we gain more control over emotions like anger and resentment, and broaden our perspective.
- “What’s the best-case scenario if I find a way to resolve this and open my desired doors to growth? What’s the worst-case scenario if I don’t? How do I want to remember myself in either reality? What would make me proud or, at the very least, content?” You can’t control how they handle the situation, but you can control how you handle it.
Time for the good (but hard) stuff. Give these four tactics a whirl, and let’s see what you make of it. I’m hopeful you’ll pleasantly surprise yourself (and others).
You’re human, and it’s ok to want to talk about your problems before you deal with them as long as it doesn’t become obsessive, spark gossip, or harm other relationships or other areas of your life. I’m admittedly guilty of the latter; a lot of us are. So, instead of calling your mom, talking in circles with your coworker, or suppressing and compartmentalizing your thoughts, try journaling, or working with a therapist or coach. Go with whichever route feels most comfortable for you right now. My coach has helped me get through many challenging intra and interpersonal scenarios in ways that I’m proud of, and in some cases, it’s expensable. Essentially, you need to establish a healthy and frequent practice for venting, so you don’t succumb to or reciprocate with equally “bad” behaviors. My friend in finance had a similar sentiment, “It was important to me that I protect the people below and around me from my manager's bad behavior directed at me. Don't deal with your bully by becoming one yourself.”
Set limitations and non-negotiables for what you can control to stay as close as possible to the ideal version of yourself, regardless of the outcome (i.e. What you aligned on in the last prompt of the Gut Check section). For example, can you give yourself a deadline for resolving or moving on from this conflict? How much time do you want to spend thinking and talking about it? What action(s) would take things too far and establish irreconcilable differences? Write them down and say them aloud at least once, whether it’s to yourself, your therapist or your coach. Your limitations are rooted in your purpose, intuition and core values, and are worthy of protection.
Overcome your fears or natural aversion to addressing the problem directly by adopting what Arianna Huffington calls “compassionate directness.” Think of this as an opportunity to gain respect from your peers (an important and elusive thing to attain for women, next to likability). First, lock in a 1:1 with the problematic manager or colleague (45 minutes to 1 hour). Ask for it to be separate from your usual check-ins to establish its importance and say the purpose is to “discuss your performance and growth at the company because you value their input.” Next, schedule time on your calendar to prepare. During this time, identify your objectives for this conversation (e.g. accountability, understanding, inclusion, etc.) and how you’ll communicate what you need to succeed and sustain while working for or with them. Focus your language on what YOU need and YOUR expectations of them per your relationship dynamics instead of running through a laundry list of what they’re doing wrong. Disarm them, don’t spark their defense mode. Let the conversation unfold naturally, and if they say things like, “Well, that’s not how it went for me,” question why that’s inherently applicable to you and listen without interruption. Be curious and open-minded. Hopefully, this fosters a safe space for you to get into a rhythm of sharing, listening and aligning on concrete action items that lead to growth for both of you.
- There’s a chance the above conversation does not go well. That’s why these two things are equally important:
Seek allyship from other colleagues and additional support from higher-ups or HR (as needed and if available). “One bad person shouldn't be the driver of your overall experience. I'm still friends with people who worked with me under a toxic boss. We rallied together and could lean on each other for support. If I received criticism on a presentation from my manager, I would ask someone else in the meeting for their opinion of my performance. People want to help, and comparing her criticism with the pros and cons of an outside opinion to determine what was real and what were just unkind words from an unkind person helped me get through it.” — NYC-based senior leader in finance.
- Find alternative ways to validate your work and self-worth without relying on others. “I started Sadie Baddies as a response to my feelings of isolation and to fuel my creativity during that time. I turned a negative experience into an opportunity to build community and help people who look like me and are going through the same thing. You have to try not to internalize it and reframe the job as a stepping stone to a bigger goal. Be yourself, stay focused, and sometimes just showing up, trying your best and doing the work is enough.” — Priscilla.
I’ll keep this short and sweet.
Monitor the limitations and non-negotiables you previously set, and act accordingly. We could all take a cue from Priscilla and call it quits sooner than later if it’s proving to be an irreparable situation.
- Track your interactions and their most notable “bad” behaviors. “No one wants to find themselves in a situation where HR needs to get involved. But if a manager or colleague's behavior is that bad, it is never a bad idea to have some concrete examples of that behavior. Even if it doesn't go anywhere, writing things down can help you aggregate your thoughts and formulate a better plan of action.” — NYC-based senior leader in finance.
Just for Fun
Read, watch or listen to these pieces of content to learn more about empathy, radical candor and compassionate directness.
- Read: Radical Candor by Kim Scott
- Watch: “Why We Need More Empathy in the Workplace” with Shola Kaye, TedxPeckham
- Listen: “Arianna Huffington ON: How Setting Small Micro Habits Can Help Combat Burnout and Exhaustion,” On Purpose with Jay Shetty
That’s all from me. You got this.