Is Being Collaborative Really an Advantage for Women at Work?

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.

Photo:  Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock.com

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