Is Being Collaborative Really an Advantage for Women at Work?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon is Professor Emerita of Management at University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.
She earned her Ph.D. summa cum laude and with distinction at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst after receiving her BA degree with honors from University of Connecticut at Storrs. Kathleen is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi and Mortar Board.
Her primary areas of scholarly interest have been leadership communication, persuasion, politics in the workplace, negotiation and interpersonal communication. Public Opinion Quarterly described her first book, Persuasion in Practice, as a landmark contribution to the field.
Kathleen has taught negotiation, leadership and politics in the MBA, Executive MBA, and International MBA. For 15 years, she served on the USC Preventive Medicine faculty, developing interventions aimed at changing health habits among high-risk populations. She also served as associate director with Warren Bennis of the USC Leadership Institute.
She has authored 10 books and numerous articles, including three for The Harvard Business Review. Her 2001 book The Secret Handshake: Mastering the Politics of the Business Inner Circle (Currency, Doubleday) became an Amazon.com nonfiction and business best seller. It was followed by The Skilled Negotiator (Jossey-Bass, 2004), It’s All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren’t Enough (Currency, Doubleday, 2005), Childhood Denied: Ending the Nightmare of Child Abuse and Neglect (Sage, 2008), and Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation (Harper Business, 2010).
Her first novel, Shadow Campus, is an inside look at the politics of academia, a mystery-thriller and a love story. Forbes described it as a “masterful debut.” The sequel is underway for publication in 2015.
Kathleen was awarded the 2013 Humanitarian Award by the University of Connecticut Alumni Association based on her contributions to underserved groups, especially in originating and working to develop college prep academies for foster teens (www.firststar.org).
Kathleen is a signature blogger at Huffington Post (since 2005) and also blogs at her website (www.kathleenkelleyreardon.com).
We know that a body of research shows women to be more nurturing, team-oriented, and collaborative. This is expected of us. And so, it’s lately been recommended that women consider couching their disagreements, negotiations and suggestions in collaborative ways — essentially playing to their strengths. When seeking a raise, for example, you might talk about your salary being a signal to the whole team of their value or mention how your concern is one that benefits the entire project.
Skillful collaboration at work is certainly a useful arrow to have in your quiver. For those women already friendly, likable, and desiring to please, this approach comes naturally. So, it’s good news to hear that you can employ it to your advantage. But let me add a caveat: collaboration is just one "arrow" and clinging to only one way of acting rarely works well over time.
Stretching, expanding your repertoire while still being yourself, is more important. In fact, if a woman is already by nature collaborative and uses that approach with everyone, she sets herself up for problems. Why?
First, interesting people are not one-dimensional or predictable. The former is boring and the latter opens people up to being easily manipulated.
Second, astute communication requires the ability to respond to people of various types — to speak their language. Constant collaboration in a competitive environment is like moving to France and speaking only Greek. There won’t be many people listening.
Third, continuous collaboration often signals an inability to lead in situations where it’s impossible to please everyone.
You have to know where you are on any behavioral continuum before determining how to improve. Increased collaboration may be exactly what’s needed for a woman, or man, who is painfully direct and oblivious to the feelings and needs of others. Women who spend much of their time being collaborative, however, would do well to learn with which colleagues and bosses this approach does and doesn’t work.
It’s important, especially as public attention turns once again to the challenges women face at work, that we use caution in making blanket recommendations about what types of behavior are best for them as a group. Like men, women differ. The types of people and situations they face also differ.
Research can detect important gender differences, but often those are quite small in the great scheme of things and do not pertain to all women. How well a particular woman's style fits where she works is more important when deciding how she, as an individual, should act. There are a lot of women who aren’t collaborative at work by nature and they’re doing quite well.
We all do ourselves a favor by learning a variety of workplace communication strategies. If you tend to collaborate, that’s fine. But apply this tendency judiciously. No matter how superb your breaststroke, using it to cross a desert is futile. Being collaborative in the wrong situations is similar.
There are occasions in any workplace where the best focus is not on how to make everyone feel good. It’s on readying yourself to give as good as you’re likely to get.
Dr. Reardon also blogs on this topic here.
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