Monday, October 10, 2011

Comfort Level

In the last post, I described a hypothetical situation in which a female project leader (Jennifer) is having difficulty with some of her male colleagues.  Instead of contacting her directly with some important information affecting her project, the manager of a refuge where she is conducting a study has contacted someone else in Jennifer's organization who has no involvement in the project (Bob). To make matters worse, Bob is attempting to "help" her by answering these emails (instead of simply forwarding the messages to her and informing the sender of his error).

Over the years, I've experienced variations of this annoying situation.  Female colleagues have also mentioned this problem.  The details change, but the underlying theme is the same. Instead of contacting the woman who should be receiving the message directly, the message sender instead talks or writes to another man who may be the woman's supervisor, employee, student, collaborator, husband, or the guy in the next office. The man who receives the message typically forwards the message, sometimes immediately, sometimes not. He may inform the sender of his error, or not.    

So what's going on here?

First, I think that people want to deal with people with whom they feel most comfortable.  They prefer communicating with someone who is similar to themselves. This is the reason the refuge manager in the hypothetical scenario persists in contacting someone he knows and feels at ease with.  Similarly, the instances I've personally encountered involved men who seemed to be more comfortable communicating with other men and who were uncomfortable interacting with a woman (of equal status).  In these cases, it's male workers who feel more at ease interacting with other males, especially concerning more "masculine" endeavors.  We can imagine other situations in which the gender roles are reversed or which involve other contrasting types of people. 

I imagine that there are also those men who, because of their stereotypical thinking, feel that their message cannot be understood by a woman and needs to be communicated to a man (who will understand and might have more experience communicating with the woman in question).  There are fewer of these dinosaurs nowadays, but they still exist.

Second, this situation is exacerbated by an intermediary who tries to help out by responding to the message. This man may be trying to be helpful or he may be doing something else entirely.  In our hypothetical scenario, Jennifer's colleague, Bob, is receiving messages about Jennifer's project and instead of simply forwarding them to her, is responding on her behalf.  We don't have enough information to know whether Bob is trying to be helpful or has an ulterior motive for his actions. Regardless of his motives, however, by responding to the message (instead of informing the sender of his error), Bob has set himself up as Gatekeeper of communications between Jennifer and the refuge manager.

This type of situation may be a minor annoyance or it might be a Problem.  If Bob is trying to help, it's just a brief irritation.  On the other hand, Bob may be taking advantage of the situation to undermine her.  Jennifer is a new employee in a consulting company, where competition among employees may be intense.  Bob may be trying to insert himself into a project that he wanted to lead, but instead was given to Jennifer.  She is new, so may not be fully aware of office politics or have had time to identify the sharks.

Jennifer responded initially by contacting the refuge manager directly to say that she had received the information (but did not point out his error in contacting Bob).  I think this action was appropriate, given the circumstances.  She sent a clear message to the refuge manager that she was the rightful recipient of the information (which hints that they should contact her directly in the future).  This was the minimum action that someone in Jennifer's situation should have taken. 

However, Jennifer did not address Bob's actions. She should have asked him not to respond to any future messages from the refuge on her behalf and to simply forward the messages to her.  Actually, this step was critical not only to insuring that Bob could not interfere, but so that the refuge manager would have no other option except to contact her directly. As long as Bob was available, the refuge manager could ignore Jennifer's request for direct communication.  Also, by dealing with Bob in such a direct way, she would also gain some insight into his motives for interfering in the first place (critical information for Jennifer to survive in her new workplace).  If Bob persists in his role as Gatekeeper, then Jennifer will know that he is not simply trying to "help" her. 

If Bob continues to intercept messages meant for Jennifer, then she has a much bigger problem on her that will take some creative thinking to resolve.  In the next post, I'll consider how Jennifer might handle Bob's persistent interference.

Image Credit: Still image from "Cool Hand Luke" (1967), Jalem Productions

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