I recently joined the executive team of my organization as an interim VP. I am pretty sure I will end up with this role because I have been getting great feedback and no one has the time or brain space for yet another search and hiring cycle. I love the job and feel that I am getting my head around it.
The executive team is a mix of both long-tenured guys who know the business but aren’t innovating, and go-getters like me. My problem is that there is only one other woman on the team—I’ll call her Jane—who, for reasons I can’t understand, behaves as if she’s everyone’s servant.
I have worked with Jane in the past and find her super competent, straightforward, and inspiring. I know many members of her team and everyone loves working for her. However, in executive team meetings, all of the VPs and EVPs treat her as if she is their administrative assistant. She has far more seniority than some of the others on the team, including an EVP. Detailed tasks that should really be taken by other individuals end up on her plate.
Just yesterday, one of the VPs (who has a reputation for being Teflon with responsibilities) actually turned to her and said, “I’m not very good at that. Jane, would you mind taking that ball and running with it?” And she said, “Sure.” I almost said something. I know how hard Jane works. I am confused as to why she is taking on tasks that really don’t belong to her. It’s clear she is being taken advantage of.
I want to convince her to push back and stand up for herself. It is driving me crazy. What to do?
Desperate to Help
Dear Desperate to Help,
I can see how that might be frustrating. I don’t know that I would have had the self-regulation to not say something. There are a couple of things to think about here.
First, you might want to wait until you are appointed to the VP role before you do anything to rock the boat. Being interim means you are still being closely monitored for fit to the team and making waves is not advisable. This doesn’t apply as much when it comes to your stances on strategic decisions—your peers need to see how you arrive at your positions, how you think, the extent to which you do your homework and are properly informed, and whether or not your values are aligned with those of the organization. But interfering with existing team dynamics is risky business. You will want to be in a secure position before you take that on.
Once you have the job for sure, confirm your read on the situation. See what you can find out about the history of team and how Jane got her VP role. Perhaps she actually started out as the secretary or executive admin for the team. Old habits die hard! It’s also possible she volunteered to be the task rabbit for everyone. Of course, neither may be true, but you just don’t know—asking Jane a few questions might be a good place to start.
If, in fact, it turns out none of this is true and the men have figured out Jane is a pleaser who will keep letting them dump a bunch of tedious work on her, the next step for you is to have a candid conversation with Jane. It isn’t your responsibility to save her from herself, but you can point out what you are observing—fresh eyes see dynamics that everyone else has become inured to. You can share your observation and then ask more pertinent questions.
I guess it is possible that Jane doesn’t mind. I find that hard to believe, but hey, each to her own. If Jane does mind, you could help her hatch a plan to start pushing back. She might want to have a separate conversation with each man on the team instead of causing confusion by abruptly changing her servile ways . You could help her rehearse what she might say. Setting boundaries is excruciatingly difficult for most people and impossible for some, so practice is important.
The reason we sometimes don’t set boundaries is that the only things we can think of saying are personal and judgy and could ruin a relationship. And then the moment passes, and that’s that—an opportunity to put a stop to shenanigans missed.
The key is to simply state the facts, free of defensiveness, blame, or judgment:
What we want to say: Why do you guys always dump stuff on me? I am drowning here. Do your own darn work!
What we might say instead: I have noticed that I often take on tasks that really are not in my lane, and I am finding I have more on my plate than I can get to. In the future I will need to respectfully decline those kinds of tasks.
What we want to say: John, you lazy slob, stop trying to get me to do your job for you.
What we might say instead: I think that particular ‘to do’ item really belongs to you, John.
What we want to say: Just because you have no attention to detail and haven’t bothered to develop skills like I have doesn’t mean I should bail you out every time.
What we might say instead: I empathize that you don’t think you are good at that kind of thing, Phillip, but that doesn’t mean I should do it.
You can also be alert and ready to role model this behavior if somebody on the team tries to pull the same thing with you. It doesn’t sound like anyone has done this yet, but it can’t hurt to be prepared. People who habitually take advantage of others seem to have radar for those who will comply without fuss. I know several people—both males and females—who figure that if they can delegate, why not? So be ready. The first test will send the message that you are no Jane.
Many people are pleasers and love to use their skills to help others. It can be really tricky when people rise to executive levels and they are still getting the need to please met—it is a sure path to burnout. Whatever happens with Jane, it is ultimately up to her to decide for herself what she is and is not willing to put up with—and what, if anything, she can do about it. I appreciate that you are annoyed by what you think is a gross injustice and want to be a spokesperson for shifting gender dynamics. But in the end, all you really can do is make sure you are adding value and taking responsibility for your own relationships with members of the team.
Some battles just aren’t yours to fight. I am sure you have plenty of your own ahead of you.
I hope you do get the job.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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