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Ask Allison: 'How do I handle my difficult colleague?'

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Allison Keating. Photo: Conor McCabe

Allison Keating. Photo: Conor McCabe

Allison Keating. Photo: Conor McCabe

Q Can you give me any advice on handling a difficult colleague? I work on projects that are very high pressured in a competitive business. I have a lot of experience and I'm very well regarded in my field. I am a woman in my mid-forties and my team has recently been joined by a man in his twenties. He works by the clock and often leaves tasks unfinished. He doesn't take direction well and has often complained to our section head about the way I speak to him. I am direct, but always polite and professional. I think he has potential, but I'm afraid to offer any more direction. He reports to me so I'm not overstepping any boundaries. How should I proceed?

A Let's just start with this very simple yet effective thought experiment. If we look at your words 'I am direct, but always polite and professional'. I'm going to ask you to 'flip it to test it' and examine if your leadership would be perceived differently if you were a man?

I suggest watching Kristen Pressners' TedTalk 'Are you biased? I am'. Kristen's job is in HR and she prides herself as being unbiased in her role. When presented in the same week with a request for a pay rise from a male and female colleague her response to the man was 'sure, I'll look into it' and when the woman asked she thought 'hmm, I think, you are good.' Serendipitously, she happened to be researching unconscious bias at the time and it wasn't until a few days later than the unequal penny dropped and she became aware of her different responses to the same request.

She realized that she had a bias towards women leaders and no one was more surprised than her. We use the word 'unconscious' and understand it. However, we are all susceptible to the blind-spots it provides and none more so, than our unconscious bias between our expectations of men and women.

Let's start with what an unconscious bias is, it is 'a rule of thumb' whereby, your brain takes shortcuts and looks for patterns that is has seen over the course of your life. In this regard it is very useful and helpful, without which, getting anything done would be a nightmare.

Automatic pilot serves us well the majority of time. The question is how can we intercept unconscious bias when we don't even know what our biases are?

Trust yourself when something feels a bit off. On paper it sounds like you are giving the feedback in a direct and professional way and you are also aware of how you behaviour is being interrupted. You know that your colleague does not like how you are speaking with him and has complained about you to your section head.

Pressner found that research on unconscious bias listed the following as our expectations of each genders.

Men were seen as a leader, provider, assertive, strong and had drive. Women were seen as supportive, emotional, helpful, sensitive and fragile.

If we take those words and put them into our unconscious expectations do we see men as 'taking charge' and women as 'taking care'? So when your brain takes the shortcut of the pattern its most familiar with, is this why Kristen took the male pay request more seriously?

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Kristen is the sole earner for her family, she is the one 'in charge' and her husband 'cares' for their four children and yet Kristen's unconscious bias saw the male request more seriously and saw the man as the 'provider'.

Is unconscious bias at the root of this issue? One thing I learned when training with stereotypes and bias is to recognise that we all have bias, what changes it, is awareness.

Is your direct style being perceived as abrasive?

Take some time reflecting on what it is like being a woman leader. Many behaviours become skewed through our unconscious bias of 'how' we expect a woman to be, especially when giving feedback, leading or being in charge.

What would it be like to do some training to change this for you and within the culture of your organization? Becoming aware is the key. This is not something people will be open to, as we resist and hold on tight to our biases because if one is questioned it can leave people feeling vulnerable, unsure and often defensive in turn, retaliating and deflecting it back on you.

Stand back, breathe in. Ask yourself have your done anything wrong, or is bias at play here?

You are not going to eliminate the double standard that exists within a narrower range of gender-acceptable behaviours at work. But, once you are aware, you can use this to consciously lead in a way that you recognise when something is off.

Checking in, if it's you, or is it a long held unconscious bias that needs to be challenged?

When it doubt #flipittotestit.

If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at allisonk@independent.ie


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