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Dr. Irene S. Levine

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Friendship by the Book: Finding "Unexpected Angels" in the Workplace

Posted: 06/01/10 01:08 PM ET

I was delighted to interview HuffPo blogger and fellow author Marcia Reynolds, PsyD to discuss her new book and the topic of female friendships in the workplace. Marcia is the author of Wander Women: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction (Berrett-Koehler, 2010). Her doctoral degree is in organizational psychology with a research emphasis on the needs of high-achieving women; her road to success is nothing short of impressive.

Irene: In what ways can female friendships help or hinder women at work?

Marcia: I believe women should create "communities of support" at work that consist of at least two other like-minded women who will help each other stay on target to their dreams and resolve problems along the way. I describe how to create these communities and what you should look for when choosing who should be in your group in my book:

Coming together with like-minded women will keep you from feeling isolated. Empathetic, encouraging friends committed to growth can help one another maintain focus even when layoffs loom, employees whine, the kids at home scream, health issues nag, and projects overwhelm. If you can find other women who are consciously trying to become better leaders or live more satisfying, purposeful lives, you can develop personal connections and create communities with women who regularly help one another learn and grow.

Once you align with these women, there are four requirements for sustaining your community: you trust each other to tell the truth, speak directly to you, and not talk behind your back; you honor that you are all changing and learning and respect the shifts that are taking place; you allow each other to express emotions as long as they do not hurt anyone else; and you find ways to laugh together as often as possible.

Irene: What are some of the ways women tend to sabotage one another on the job?

Marcia: Sabotage more commonly consists of passive-aggressive behaviors that a person can deny than the more apparent behaviors such as sending out slanderous emails or exaggerating someone's behavior and reporting it to HR. The more underhanded behaviors include withholding information that could be useful to a colleague's success on a project, derailing someone's good idea or taking credit for the good idea while making the originator look inadequate.

Often women who stand out as star performers unwittingly become the brunt of sabotage. They hog the limelight and generate jealousy by not including or acknowledging other's contributions. Superstars need to understand that their colleagues can choose to assist or hinder their efforts. They need to create collaborative relationships to successfully achieve their goals. Sometimes this can be as simple as asking another women for her help. The sabotage might stop.

Do women treat each other any worse as colleagues in the workplace or is that a myth?

First, let me say that I believe cattiness and backstabbing behaviors are on the wane as women become more confident in themselves and their accomplishments. The more a woman rises in her field and experiences success, the more she is likely to mentor and provide opportunities for other women. Sabotaging other women only keeps the saboteur in her place.

The workplace culture breeds or squelches this behavior. Managers who use fear and favoritism to motivate people perpetuate bad behavior. Because women are generally given fewer opportunities for promotion and recognition, they resort to putting other women down to feel more secure.

Women tend to coalesce into tribes. High-achievers, if they aren't loners, will hang out with other high-achievers. The same goes for poor or average performers. Then women might "clique-up" by other means including lifestyle, cultural differences, physical appeal, or even by similar life problems. They may not bad-mouth those outside of the tribe, but exclusion hurts nonetheless.

Yes, many women AND MEN gossip, criticize and even bully their colleagues. However, if a woman is a bully at work, she is probably a bully elsewhere in her life.

Irene: Do you have any thought about a single female friendship that was most significant in determining the person that you are?

Marcia: I have a wonderful community of support around the world. I am grateful every day for authors, speakers and coaches I know that keep me learning and loving every day. Yet when I think of the ONE most significant friend I have had, the woman who was my cellmate in jail 35 years ago comes to mind. I call her my "unexpected angel." We had completely different upbringing and completely different circumstances to face when released. However, she is the person I credit for helping me see that I am more than what I have done in the past or what I can accomplish in the future.

I had fallen onto a dark path as a drug user as a young adult. When I ended up in jail, I not only felt lost, I felt like a failure. Vicky helped me see that who I am--a smart, funny, creative, generous, and caring person--was still intact. When I claimed who I was on the inside, I could accomplish anything I wanted on the outside.

This was a significant turning point. I had been brought up believing my accomplishments were most important. I had to get straight A's, be good at sports, entertain at parties and outshine my peers whenever I could. When I stumbled at being a superstar in high school, I felt confused, even angry. When I had no external validation, my internal support system failed me.

Don't get me wrong--I still felt I needed to be the best. That is why I wound up in jail as the best drug user in my group. I have no regrets. I have a greater understanding about life than all three of my advanced degrees I earned since then have provided me. And I have a depth of compassion that serves me well in my work. Most importantly, I met Vicky. Then I met myself.
You never know who will be your unexpected angel. Look for her in the eyes of every woman you meet. I believe that this is how our bonds will change the world.

Friendship by the Book is an occasional series of posts on The Friendship Blog about books that offer friendship lessons.

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