Ask The New Girls: Trouble with Tone

Ask The New Girls: Trouble with Tone

Ask The New Girls: Trouble with Tone

Dear New Girls,

I have been having problems with a co-worker, who is managed by one of my colleagues. When I brought my complaints about this co-worker to my colleague, instead of offering to actually manage, he jumped on me for what he called my “inappropriate tone.” I wasn’t expecting this kind of pushback, but now I have an unruly co-worker plus a ticked off colleague. Help!



Dear Atonal,

We hear this all the time. Women have a conversation where they feel direct, professional, and assertive, and they get feedback that they are harsh, abrasive, or inappropriate. There is a reason for this: Women are expected to be warm, team-oriented, and collaborative, whereas forceful, assertive people (and future leaders) are expected to be direct, risk-takers, and ambitious. When women fulfill gender norms, they often are seen as good women but not good workers. And when they act like go-getters, they often are seen as good workers but not good women. Lots and lots of studies show that women often have to choose between being liked but not respected, or respected but not liked.

In your case, you used a tone that you felt was professional and direct, but received backlash because your tone didn’t fit the prescriptions of how women should communicate. This double-bind is 100% unfair. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have to deal with it again and again…and again.  So here are your options: (1) you can continue using the communicative style you have used before, but be aware that tense relationships with co-workers and colleagues may come back to bite you when looking for a promotion or recommendation; or (2) you can strategically change your communicative style so as to facilitate better relationships with co-workers and colleagues, while not sacrificing your professionalism and your ability to get the job done.

If you want to go with the second option, our advice is to mix the masculine with the feminine and practice tone control. In the future, if you are having problem with a co-worker, seek help by highlighting a common goal that isn’t being met: for example, “Y’s behavior is making it hard for our team to complete X project successfully” rather than “Y is impossible and I want him off the project.” Complement the person whose help you are seeking: “I know you have a great relationship with Y” or “Y always seems to listen to your feedback” or “I know Y respects your opinion.” Suggest a collaborative approach whenever possible: “Perhaps we could chat about how best to work together with Y on these issues.”  You get the idea: be warm, be collaborative, be a team-player.

But that’s all advice for the future. You still have to repair your relationship with your colleague now. Through whatever method you feel most comfortable, communicate the following:

“I was upset to hear that you felt that I communicated to you in a disrespectful or inappropriate way. This was not my intention, particularly because of how much I respect you. I would love your feedback so that I do not inadvertently do this again. I very much respect your opinion and hope we can work together to solve this issue for the good of the project.”

As frustrating as this may seem, take this pickle for what it is: a learning experience. Thinking these things through early in your career can –will–save you a lot of trouble later.

Best of luck!


The New Girls

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