The higher you rise, the more challenges you’ll face. Backing down may keep the peace, but it won’t win you the war.
It was a quiet afternoon. Almost the entire team was out. It was three months into my new job, and I was holding the fort.
Then the phone rang. The CEO’s office was requesting some analysis in an hour and wanted me to present the data!
While the query was routine, the database was managed by a man who had issues with female authority figures. Other women in the office had warned me about him.
I requested a report from him and explained the urgency. It should have only taken 10 minutes. Yet, after 45 minutes and an e-mail reminder, I received nothing.
Finally, I walked up to him and asked him to “please hurry it up as the meeting starts in 15 minutes”. That was when all hell broke loose.
He yelled at the top of his voice: “I will give it to you when it is done. You are not the boss, so stop behaving like one. I don’t care if it is urgent.”
You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone stopped to stare at me.
My stomach was in a knot, my mouth was dry, but I knew I could not let it go. With every ounce of courage I could muster, I told him: “Mr Johnson, no one has and no one will ever talk to me like that – certainly not you.”
I left and regained my composure in the restroom. On my return, the room was still silent. But the report was on my desk.
“Feelings are much like waves – you can’t stop them from coming, but you can choose which ones to surf.”
Even though women occupy positions of power in the corporate world, many stereotypes and unwritten norms remain about how much authority and voice we should have.
Some challenges to our authority are direct. Others are more passiveaggressive, like delays in reports, showing attitude, withholding data, or even gossiping and forming an “alliance” against you. Here is what I took away from the incident in my office.
1. You must respond
A challenge to your authority may throw you off-balance. But don’t let it slide, or it will set the tone for future interactions.
Modulate your response to fit the power equation at hand: Power is determined not just by rank but other factors such as gender, age, ethnicity and expertise. The challenge could have arisen because the person feels insecure on one or all fronts.
Remember: You need not respond to every single irritant. Save your energy for real threats.
2. Keep a lid on emotions
It would have been easy to wallow in self-pity, or let anger take over. But the opportunity to meet my CEO was far more important; I couldn’t let my emotions get the better of me.
There’s a saying, “Feelings are much like waves – you can’t stop them from coming, but you can choose which ones to surf.”
Later, you can go home, pour yourself a glass of wine and discuss it with your girlfriends. But in that moment, you need to be bigger than the situation. Appear to be in control even if you feel you aren’t.
And don’t lash out. Perpetuating drama only feeds the other person’s appetite.
3. Know your worth
Generally speaking, women with strong self-esteem navigate challenges to their authority better. They are less likely to blame themselves for it, or engage in an extensive post-mortem to see what they could’ve done differently. Someone’s criticism of you may reflect more on them than on you.
So grow your confidence, know your strengths and let go of the expectation that everyone must like you. As speaker and author Byron Katie once said, “It’s not your job to like me – it’s mine”.
The higher you get in an organisation, the more criticism and challenges to your authority you will face. Develop an appetite for it.
Dr Tanvi Gautam is the programme director of diversity & inclusion at Singapore Management University. She is also the founder of Leadershift Inc. This is the last in a three-part series of career articles she has written for Her World.
OFFICE GAME OF THRONES
A challenger has emerged. How do you respond?
What happens: Your co-worker overtly agrees with you, but then undermines you passiveaggressively by deviating from your brief or not providing support.
The fix: Talk to her in a neutral space – perhaps over coffee – and convince her you’re both on the same side. If it doesn’t work, make “public declarations” of the support you need from her and give her a deadline in a group e-mail or meeting. The public pressure should force her into action.
What happens: She refuses to do the work expected of her. Period.
The fix: Ask if you can do anything to make it easier for her to deliver. Separately, find out if this act is targeted at you, or is a general behavioural problem. If it’s the latter, take it up with someone senior. If she has it in only for you, ask if you come across as someone who can be treated like this – are you too accommodating? If your role permits, make the lines of authority clear, and never do their job for her.
What happens: She undermines you in front of colleagues, causing you to lose face.
The fix: A real leader is calm under pressure. Don’t take the bait if she says something to rile you. Try to understand what provoked her challenge – is it about you? Or are you caught in the middle of a bigger power struggle? Consider attending sessions on executive presence to develop your gravitas.
To keep your cool during a conflict, think how a role model of yours would respond. That helps take you “out” of the situation, making it easier to move forward objectively.