Recently at work I was asked to scan some documents by someone who: 1) is not my boss, 2), is not in my department, and 3) knows how to use the scanner. This person, we’ll call him Stuart, is older and senior to me in terms of experience, but we are both part of our company’s small management team.
Stuart’s inquiry about the scanning was weird and oblique. He explained that he was in a rush to finish something by the end of the day, and “was there someone” who could help him scan a few pages from his notebook to send to a colleague? I was flustered and unsure what he was really asking. We work in a small office without any administrative staff; everyone does their own filing, scanning, and copying. I said there was no one really to ask. He persisted. I asked if he knew how to use the scanner. Yes, he did. Finally, wanting to help out, but more than anything not knowing how to refuse, I offered to do it for him. I then seethed about it the rest of the afternoon. I was outraged that he had asked me to do something so unrelated to my job; I wanted Stuart to think of me as a peer and to treat my time as equally valuable to his. I was also upset at myself for having volunteered to do it in the first place.
Much ink has been spilled, rightly, over the challenges that female executives cope with in order to earn and maintain leadership positions at the head of an organization. These are some of the highest-achieving women in our society, and even they are faced with subtle and often unacknowledged bias from bosses, colleagues, and boards. These challenges are no different for women in more junior positions, people still in the early- and mid-stages of their careers who are struggling with how to succeed. For many of these women, myself included, a core challenge we face is how to be perceived as competent while still being “likable.” The scanning episode revealed a related workplace complication: how do you go about being supportive and collaborative while maintaining boundaries about your role and responsibilities?
You could argue that I helped create the scanning situation. Stuart was a recent hire and, in the spirit of trying to be helpful, I’d taken on some training responsibilities and made myself very available to him for questions and support even about things unrelated to my core job function. I saw this as an all hands on deck moment and felt I should do my part. This is often referred to as “being a team player”: jumping in to help without being asked and recognizing that if the company succeeds, everyone succeeds. These are qualities I value in others, and therefore something I try to emulate. Beyond this motivation, there are definitely times where contributing in areas outside of our core roles is also simply the smart thing to do, either politically (ex., your boss really needs you to) or personally (ex., if it gives you an opportunity to stretch or do something new that you’ve been wanting to try).
But there is no question that this attitude at work can also be complicating, implying that you are accountable for things that are not actually part of your job. I have observed this to be more common with women, especially when working with men who are older than them – both factors in my situation as well. I noticed that another colleague of ours, senior to me in age and also at the management level, was always very clear about his boundaries. He couldn’t be counted on to volunteer to take on additional work outside of his department, which sometimes frustrated me, but I observed that no one was asking him to do their administrative work for them, either.
When I realized that I would really never ask a coworker who is also not in my department to help me with scanning, even if I were feeling pressed for time, it became obvious that I’d let my colleague cross a work boundary that I wasn’t comfortable with. I allowed it due to some combination of surprise, a true desire to be helpful, and discomfort explaining why I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help. I’m sure Stuart didn’t mean to offend, but the situation cast a bright light on what I want for myself at work: to have my time and responsibilities recognized as equally important and respected as other managers. I’m trying to redraw my work boundaries so that I can focus on those core responsibilities, and also to demonstrate and protect my value to my company. This situation may never come up again. If it does, I have some lines ready to deliver: “I’m sorry, I can’t help.” “I’m not the right person for this.” “This sounds like something you should talk to [name of person in his department] about.”
I already anticipate these are going to be hard for me to say, but I know I need to. I may sacrifice some likability to Stuart, but I’ll hate myself if I don’t.
Image: Quilt from Gee’s Bend