Obstacle #19 in the Glass Obstacle Course
Who put that in my way? Did I?
I sat at my desk a few weeks ago, waiting for a coworker. We’ll call him Kevin. Kevin and I have a standard weekly meeting, which we normally conduct by phone since we work several states apart. This particular week, he traveled to my local office and so when I ran into him in the hallway earlier in the day, he confirmed he’d come by my desk at our usual time.
Our meeting time came and passed… and I was still at my desk, waiting.
Five minutes before our meeting was scheduled to end, Kevin stops by. The apology for missing our meeting was buried in a joke. There was no acknowledgement that despite ready access to email, text and IM, he did not take fifteen seconds to let me know he wasn’t going to make our scheduled time.
This is where the glass obstacle analogy comes in. Today, a small action – or rather inaction – does not stop me from doing my work or from having positive work relationships. But what if Kevin made this a habit? And what if others observe this behavior and figure they can easily blow off meetings with me as well? After all, I try to be accommodating and flexible: we are all so busy and it seems like a little thing, but it sets a precedent for future behavior. Behavior that becomes an obstacle to my ability to function as a leader.
What really bothered me about the situation was trying to figure out what made Kevin think that it was ok to skip the professional courtesy of a call in the first place. I thought about a few of our male coworkers with whom I knew he also had meetings that day. And I am pretty sure if he was running late or about to miss one of those meetings, they would have received some sort of message about it. After all, this was a business meeting. Was there something in my behavior that indicated that I did not require equal treatment to my male peers?
This also puts the power structure of our relationship in Kevin’s hands. I’m not into power struggles with coworkers – too much work – but I’ve also got things to do. And if I’m always adjusting my work to Kevin’s pace, my stuff may not get done. And certainly not on the schedule I am trying to meet. So there’s a balance to be managed here, where we collaborate and are both getting what we need.
How do I get around this obstacle… a seemingly harmless act of disrespect… without damaging what has been, so far, a productive and positive working partnership?
I suspect if I put the question to Kevin directly, he would be surprised that I interpreted the missing communication as disrespectful. That lack of awareness raises the question of how men generally treat women in the work place. And how we respond in return. Is it easier to skip the professional niceties with me because as a woman, I’m not as likely to make a fuss? Did I invite this behavior because I laugh at his jokes? Do I sound like a harpy if I call him out on it? There are already myriad studies that show how women struggle with being liked in the work place – and drawing a firm line is one way we get pegged as being strident or aggressive. Or to use Sheryl Sandberg’s term… bossy.
Mrs. Roosevelt had it partly right: we do teach people how to treat us. So it’s my job to tell Kevin, “Hey, my time is valuable and if you’re going to miss an appointment, you need to let me know.” But she only had it partly right because some patterns of behavior were taught long before we came into the picture. Men and women do treat each other differently, and I have long held the belief that what we perceive as sexism in the workplace is not just perpetuated by men, but by women too. Some roles and behaviors are familiar to us, even though they may not be the best behaviors for success at work.
I still don’t know if this particular glass obstacle is one I nudged into my path or one that has been there a while and I finally tripped over it. I suppose it doesn’t matter. I just know it’s there. But now that I’ve bumped into it, I can scale it.
How many obstacles do you run into that seem innocuous? We are so ready to excuse them. But step back and examine the pattern… are they really so innocent?