When Work-Around Isn't Working


<em>Women are masters of accomodation. When life hands us lemons, we make an absolutely breathtaking lemon mousse. Are women problem-solvers, you ask?</em>

Women are masters of accomodation. When we see an obstacle, we dedicate ourselves to the task of figuring out how to get over, under or through it. When life hands us lemons, we make an absolutely breathtaking lemon mousse, wow-ing the neighbors at the annual block party. Are women problem-solvers, you ask? How can you even ask the question? As Carmela Soprano would say, Fuhgeddaboutit. We've got an answer for everything.

But this strength of ours can be a weakness. Wherever I go around the U.S. and abroad, I talk to absolutely brilliant businesswomen who have figured out elaborate solutions to problems they face at work. I'm talking about work-arounds: ways to deal effectively with obstacles, mostly man-made, that could keep these women from doing their best work, serving clients, or taking care of themselves and their families. Masters of clever solutions, we're also the Iron Chefs of work-arounds. We always figure out how to make a mouth-watering lemon chiffon out of the lemons life hands us, no matter how bare the cupboard. But is this always a good thing?

I talked to a friend this week, an old colleague of mind who works these days for a fear-ful boss. You know the type: won't make a decision, won't do the difficult things needed to move the company forward, and can't handle conflict of any kind. What happens? My friend does her best to run the company from backstage. She's good at it. People trust her, rely on her and look to her for guidance. Not only does she not get credit for these behind-the-scenes activities - she does them stealthily, so as not to upset her insecure boss! She's a master at the workaround. Every day, people benefit from her accomodation skills. But do they attack the underlying problem?

Another WorldWIT person in the UK is an attorney. She works in a law firm, cleaning up messes for more senior solicitors and calming the clients her colleagues have upset. She's a heroine, every day - but the bad stuff goes on, as her oblivious workmates forge ahead with their bull-in-a-china-shop client-handling tendencies. So the firm's clients benefit from her light touch. Does she also enable more bad behavior, by cleaning up all the damage her partners do?

I wonder whether the work-arounds we devise at work do as more harm than good. When we figure out a clever way to be helpful or fast or smart or productive despite silly human obstacles, we undoubtedly help our employers. (And if we're in charge, we help our business and financial prospects, too.) But when we work around rather than straight through a political, communication or human-relations issue, we also dignify it. We acknowledge that the problem itself is too tough to tackle, by creating a system to lessen its impact rather than to solve it outright.

I wonder whether we'd be better off sometimes saying "This isn't working," and naming the real problem. We know we can find one, two or half-a-dozen brilliant work-arounds for any problem thrown at us. The bigger question is, can we decide to stand right up to it? Can we say "It was dishonest to communicate to our client that way," or "The employees don't trust you" or "I can't be party to that anymore"? It's riskier than the work-arounds we're so good at. But don't our elaborate schemes and solutions make us part of the problem, the part that says "I'll just spend all my time creating ways to get work done in spite of this bad stuff" rather than tackling it head-on?

It's fun to hear these stories of wily women using their brains to work around obstacles in their paths. But that's a time-honored tradition. What if we started a new tradition, of women saying "That doesn't work for me" and making honest dealing a condition of our employment (or client relationship, or what have you)? What if we re-wrote the terms, to say "I won't stand for that" rather than working behind the scenes to mitigate the damage? We have so much power - what if we decided that using it to lessen the impact of bad actors was way, way less important than using our power to root out the bad stuff altogether?

I'm not saying that telling truth to power is easy or fun. You might get a professional black eye or lose a job, a client or a mentor over it. But where's the triumph in women succeeding at business on someone else's terms? We can do better. We can move beyond cleaning up other people's messes, to creating a mess-free zone around us and expanding it. Don't you think so?

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<strong>About the Author</strong>
Liz has over 20 years experience in managing high-growth organizations, she lectures nationally and writes about working and managing in the digital economy. If you're looking for advice or have questions related to your job, just ask Liz! You can email Liz at lizryan@worldwit.org.


You know the saying: There's a woman behind every man's success? This just goes to show that women like these, powers-behind-the-throne types, have to stop coddling their colleagues and bosses. If they made mistakes let 'em clean up after themselves. You're not keeping house anymore.

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