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Ask questions to minimize stress - and get what you want

February 25, 2015

Oliver Twist asks for more

A lot of women hate asking for things. We don’t want to impose, we fear ‘no’, we fear other people judging and resenting us for asking in the first place.

I’ve written and broadcast many times about women’s difficulty in asking for raises – and how they’re judged when they do. But it’s not just raises that stymie us. It’s making any kind of ask. This came up in my latest show on women and stress. Psychotherapist Marjorie Hirsch made a simple but excellent point: she encourages her stressed-out clients to ask questions that could help reduce their stress.

Take the woman she talked about in the podcast whose boss was sending her emails all weekend. The woman felt her anxiety rising from Saturday morning through Sunday evening. She was frazzled and felt her free time slipping away. Hirsch said, ‘Well, have you asked your boss if she expects you to read these emails?’ The client had not. The following week she did just that, asking her boss what her expectations were. The boss told her no, she didn’t expect her to read and act on them over the weekend, she was simply unloading tasks in the expectation her employee would follow through during the week. This client prompt sounds so simple as to be almost redundant, but it’s not.

When we’re in a spiral of stress and/or anxiety we are not necessarily thinking straight. I started seeing Marjorie Hirsch myself when my own father was dying several years ago and I was a mess. One of my big fears, being single at the time, was that I would get ‘the call’ from England and have to pack up in a state of great distress and go to the airport on my own. This idea scared and depressed me to no end and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Marjorie made a suggestion: why not ask a couple of friends if they’d be up for getting my possible middle-of- the-night-in-tears call and be willing to come with me to the airport when I could book a flight? That is such sensible, simple advice, yet I couldn’t see it myself. For one thing, I wasn't thinking clearly, for another, something in me wouldn’t have wanted to ‘bother’ my friends. Yet as soon as she gave me the advice I could see its strength and immediately got in touch with two friends, who both said yes very quickly. (As it happened I didn’t need to act on this – I was able to be with my father when he died.)

Reluctance to ask for something you need or want is a reality for many women. I just listened to one of Ellevate’s webinars from last month given by Annette Saldana on asking for what you want. She rightly points out that women tend to be held back by mindsets that say either we shouldn’t impose, or that if we ask we won’t get what we want anyway, or that we shouldn’t need to ask in the first place because we do best just powering through achieving everything on our own.

I believe most women who don’t ask keep quiet because of something else Saldana said:

“A lot of what kept me from asking was this perception I’d have to turn into someone I’m not. I didn’t want to do that. I thought taking care of myself and asking was selfish and wrong.”

Exactly. Asking – to many of us – translates to being less than nice, being pushy, putting ourselves before someone else, and we hate that. Upbringing and culture teach women to be good girls, to be happy with what we’ve got. No wonder asking for stuff is so uncomfortable.

Saldana says there are three mindsets to get into for a successful ask.

1)   You have the right to ask for anything

2)   The other party has the right to say yes or no

3)   ‘No’ does not equal ‘you can’t have what you want’. Adopt the point of view that ‘no’ means ‘not now’. It just means that it’s time for another conversation, that there’s someone else you could ask.

Too often I’ve run off into the bushes after a no, assuming nothing more will happen, only to discover later that it was worth re-framing the request and/or asking someone else.

This is important stuff. I wish I had the innate confidence many men have that lets them assume they deserve things. I come from the opposite position, assuming I don’t deserve anything and need permission to do everything.

As Saldana says, it’s time to change that. 


How to stop others from wasting your time at work

February 22, 2015

Photo by Jlhopgood used with creative commons license

A couple of weeks ago I signed onto a Harvard Business Review webinar with Dorie Clark on how to stop people from wasting your time. Dorie was one of my guests in the Hell of Networking episode of The Broad Experience and contributes regularly to HBR and Forbes. This woman knows a thing or two about being efficient. She’s on a mission to spend every hour wisely and get other people to follow suit. I wanted to share a few of my takeaways from the webinar here.

If you work for a company, this may be a daily issue you’ve been wrangling with for years. There’s good stuff in here for consultants too.

Dorie’s tips:

Handling the boss

If you’re trying to be more efficient at work but you have this boss who’s holding you back (by monopolizing meetings with personal stories, for instance), try to bring them into the endeavor – make the idea seem collaborative so the boss is part of it. So say something along the lines of, “I want to be my most effective – would you be willing to help me think that through?” The boss then recognizes the worthiness of the enterprise.

Meetings – the deadliest time suck

I haven’t spent a lot of time in meetings compared to many workers. But most of us spend hours in these things and feel our souls ebbing away with each passing minute.

Dorie says every meeting should have an agenda. And if anyone questions it, again, emphasize collaboration, i.e. “It’s in the interests of being productive.” How can anyone argue with that? “It’s the ultimate laudable goal,” says Dorie.

You should also have a timeline for the meeting. You could even try holding meetings standing up to see how much less time you fritter away when no one can lounge in a chair.

Also, ask if you really need to be at the meeting. Dorie calls it policing the guest list: should you be there? Who else should be there?

One example she gave is something that’s happened to her as a consultant who has found herself in meetings that were a complete waste of her time.

“If you’re asked to a general meeting ask what it’s about and why you should be there,” she says. She suggests saying something like, ‘It occurs to me if this is a preliminary meeting it might be more efficient for me to look over the meeting notes and then comment on those.’”

Still, we have to be careful how we couch these suggestions. Dorie says you must avoid giving the impression that this is about you or your needs – you need to couch it in terms of, “This is about using my time wisely so I can benefit the company.”

Can I pick your brain?

I’ve written about this before. Dorie is not a fan of brain-picking requests as they are generally so fuzzy and eat your time. She mentioned a woman who was flooded with such requests and finally opted to have her correspondents fill out a form: the form was designed to make them think through what they wanted to ask and invest the time to be ready for the meeting when it came. Needless to say, only the most serious people bothered to go through this process.

Can we talk?

How to deal with employees stopping by your office, asking if they can have a word? Many managers don’t want to have a closed-door policy but they find it hard to get any work done with people always dropping in. Dorie suggests having office hours on a specific day or days, and making sure the time spent together is targeted.

She has a sensible way of funneling meeting times herself – she blocks out chunks of time on Mondays and Thursdays to book calls. The rest of her week is then free for other work. 

You can read Dorie's Harvard Business Review piece on this topic here.


Ditching the rules to claim your value (part 1)

February 5, 2015

unless you're a woman in the workplaceAs you know if you listen to the show and read this blog, I'm obsessed by the topic of how women value themselves - or rather, how they don't. I have no scientific proof, but I strongly suspect women end up working for nothing a lot more than men do. Why? Because women are conditioned to be nice, helpful, and generally to please others. We find it hard to say no. So when some nonprofit or maybe just a friend or acquaintance asks us to 'help out', we say yes.


I first wrote about this here and again here. I also produced a show on the topic. In this post I want to share the story of a listener who wrote to me last week.

She has been edging into a new career as a web developer. She's been enjoying learning this trade, which she has largely taught herself. She told herself that in order to get work she'd have to go and do a formal course, then start off building a portfolio by doing free work, then charging a low fee as she was 'new'. I'll let her take it from here:

"My husband shook his head and pushed me into a paying project immediately. I learned an incredible amount on the job, but more importantly, I was paid to learn those things. Obviously the client didn’t know this, but was thrilled with the result. My husband smiled smugly when I was dumbfounded and guilty at “lying” to the client. He replied that I wasn’t lying. I was not 20 and at the beginning of my career anymore. I needed to change the way I worked and thought about working. While I may not have known the technical skill set needed, I am a fast learner, I have a core basic knowledge and my previous experience in that industry greatly shortened the learning curve so that I could deliver on time, accurately. And he was right."

Think about that for a minute. How many women would have the balls to do what came naturally to her husband - to have confidence in their abilities, to bluff a bit, and hope everything worked out?

This experience was a revelation for my listener. She felt proud that she'd gone forth and essentially said, 'This is my price because of the value I bring to this project - which comes as much from my inside knowledge of an industry as it does the immediate technical skills needed to express it.' 

"It's hard," she added, "because it does go right back to the cultural expectations of women: be a good girl, follow directions/protocol, and wait your turn."

She says she still has trouble speaking up about the value she brings, because like a lot of other women, she has always valued herself and her skills so poorly, "and thus, no surprise, so do others," she says. It's her instinct to talk her price down, not up. But she's practicing, repeating her prices to herself so she gets comfortable with them, and sticking to her guns. 

Still, her husband's methodology isn't foolproof. You can read part two of this post here.


Ditching the rules to claim your value (part 2)

February 5, 2015

"Women need to learn not just to risk, but to risk reputation, to barrel through - as most are petrified to do." - Broad Experience listener

In part one of this post I told you about a listener of mine and how she'd found out to her delight that she could pull off a well paying project for a client - a client who didn't know she was relatively inexperienced.

There's a twist. You know her husband, the man who urged her on? My friend was undoubtedly under-confident. But here's a story about her spouse's over-confidence and the aftermath.

My listener says her husband, "like many men, is willing to risk big for the possibility of winning big." He took on a huge project last year, one he knew was outside his scope. "He thought he could pull it off by hiring a small team and charging the client a very large sum," she says. But it turns out he couldn't. He wasn't competent enough to do the job, even with the team, and the project "unraveled...totally exposing his lack of knowledge in the area."

Just reading that part of her email made me squirm. This is my worst nightmare: taking on something I'm not good enough to do and having it all end in guilt and recriminations. This is why so many women say no to projects they consider too risky and why we end up working for free to 'prove ourselves' - we're afraid to price ourselves too high in case we screw up. But although this sounded like a hideous situation - a duped, angry client, a stressed project lead having to spend a few thousand dollars of his own money to try to clean things up - things did not end in tears. 

The client didn't pull the project, perhaps because doing so at that late stage wouldn't have made sense. But meanwhile my listener's husband came clean, admitting he'd bitten off more than he could chew. He hired, at his own expense, outside experts who could take care of all the stuff his team couldn't, and the project will soon be finished. 

"The end result is that my husband quadrupled his skills overnight and actually could complete this project perfectly next time around for the same very high sum, precisely because of all the potholes he went through on this project. The risk in the end, even after falling on his face, is totally worth it. His reputation takes a small hit, but he keeps on moving and most future clients aren't fazed by this snafu." 

She adds that she believes these are traits women need to learn. "Not just to risk, but to risk reputation, to barrel through, as most are petrified to do. I suspect that successful female CEOs have done exactly this on their way up. Battled through gritty moments, pushed through and developed that incredible confidence in capabilities and accurate judgement of scenarios that most men are capable of, seemingly almost naturally."

To me, what her husband did was a huge risk that I'd never have taken, and the aftermath would have been excruciating for me. Yet he seems to have come out on the other side OK, as far as we know (the project after all is not quite finished).

What do you think? Should more women force themselves to take more risks for the chance of increasing their skills and reaping a great reward?  


Communication problems in your twenties

January 23, 2015

"Men get feedback more easily than women. Everyone's afraid of hurting women's feelings." - Joanna Barsh

I'm about to release a new show focusing on the careers of women in their twenties. I did it because a listener asked. But at the time I admit I wasnt that interested in the topic. How different could navigating the work world be from when I was that age?

A lot, as it happens. Much of the stuff that comes up in the show, which will be out next week, is about communication. I've learned it can be incredibly exasperating for millennials of either sex when they try to communicate with older colleagues (insert your own joke here about how Gen Xers and others cope with being on the end of those attempts). They have their own shortand for connecting with eachother, but two of my guests talked about how tough it is to translate that to the office, with its weird rules and roundabout ways of getting things done. 

But there's a gender thing I want to write about. The person I interviewed gets to be anonymous because, well, she likes her job and doesn't want to stir up any trouble. She's new to the workplace. She and her boyfriend work at the same place, on the same team. Recently there was a big decision the team was asked to contribute to - it had to send an idea to the two top brass, via a direct manager, a young man.

The team's idea was ultimately rejected. My interviewee wanted to clarify why, so first she wrote to the higher-ups and asked if they could meet to discuss it. She heard back that she had to go through the interim manager first. So that was her first frustration, that she couldn't speak directly with the ultimate decision-makers, she had to go through their deputy (to her, an absurdly indirect way of doing things, and inefficient). But then came the reaction of the deputy manager to her emailed request. She wrote to him saying she thought there had been some communication problems in getting across the team's idea, and could they meet to talk about it?

His reply came: "It’s OK, we can figure out something to do with this later, I don’t want anyone to be upset."

Her boyfriend wrote an almost identical email, but the reply he got from the guy was quite different.

"I completely agree with you, I take responsibility for the communication problems. Let's figure out a time to talk."

This surprised her.

"His response to me was more placating than anything else," she says. "'It’s OK, everything’s fine, don’t be sad. Don’t be upset. Don’t cry.' And I feel like the tone of our emails [hers and her boyfriend's] was very similar. It was, 'I have some concerns, can you talk about these concerns?'" 

This incident tallies with research that shows men are uncomfortable giving women feedback. When I spoke to former McKinsey partner Joanna Barsh in 2012, this was one of the things she talked about: that men will often assume that a woman will crumble on hearing something difficult. So they end up soft-peddling whatever it is they want to say. As a result, the woman often doesn't get the honest feedback she needs to progress at work. 

But in this case, the young male manager was getting ahead of himself. He already seemed to assume a request to 'talk' from a female co-worker meant she was upset about something. When a man wrote to him about the same thing, he met the request with equanimity. It's just another example of how a small act of communication is often deceptively tricky, especially when you throw gender into the mix.