Maybe someone circulates get-well or congratulations cards.
Someone might bring cookies to work or arrange birthday celebrations.
I know of people who arrange retirement/transition lunches.
All these actions are nice things. They even have a name: “niceties.” Nice people perform these services for the rest of the workgroup or team. (Read It’s not their job to buy you cake.)
There's a big problem: niceties don't get you credit. They don't help you find your next opportunity.
Do you know what all these nice people have in common? All these people are women. (Note: I have never seen a man arrange these “niceties.” As a benefit of the doubt, I'm sure some men do. But, the overwhelming niceties performers are women.)
What About the Culture?
Some people think these niceties reflect the corporate culture. They do.
Here's the culture these niceties reflect:
- We need “our girl” to do this.
- Our “mommies” take care of us when they serve us in this way.
- Because women are caretakers by nature, we don't have to promote them for this unpaid, extra work.
Do I sound bitter and sarcastic? Yes, I do. Here's why.
Long ago, I had a one-on-one with my VP. As I stood up to leave, he said, “Johanna, you're not arranging the get-well cards, or acknowledging birthdays.”
“True,” I said. “Instead, I speak with people as their manager. I don't do the arranging.”
“You need to. It's your job.” He then turned back to his computer, thinking our one-on-one was over.
I was furious. I asked, “Do you expect the male directors to do this, also?”
He shook his head. “Of course not. That wouldn't make any sense.”
“Then it doesn't make any sense for me, either.” I turned and left so I wouldn't yell at him in the moment. I needed time to calm down.
These “niceties” are examples of cheerleading in the organization. Cheerleading is a form of a paternal organization.
What's the Problem with Paternal Organizations?
Paternalistic organizations often create learned helplessness for the people who don't take those tasks. If someone removes your responsibility, you stop trying to take responsibility.
If a team wants to acknowledge their birthdays, sickness, and people leaving—that's great. The team made that decision. I hope they share in the responsibility for all those events.
But when a manager takes that responsibility? Or, when “the woman” is supposed to take that responsibility?
We make the men helpless. We don't expect men to show the same humanity as women do.
Men have said to me, “I'm not sure what to say,” in difficult situations.
I often reply, “I'm not sure either. You could start with that—not knowing what to say. I often do.”
Should I know more about what to say? Possibly. I am old enough to “know better.” But sometimes, I feel so strongly, I don't trust myself to speak without crying. Or some other reaction I think is not quite right.
When I admit my concern and my confusion, and then say, “I'm not sure how to support you. What can I do?” I'm more likely to offer the right kind of support.
And those birthdays, cookies, people leaving? The niceties? If the niceties are necessary for the people on the team, the team can decide how to split the responsibilities.
In reality, these niceties are a part of the surface culture. The kind of culture that says, “We suffer the women on this team because they will feed us. Or take care of us. Or somehow allow us to be the manly-man. Not the nurturing woman.”
That kind of sexism does reflect the overall culture.
Assess Your Corporate Culture
Remember, culture is how we treat each other, what we can discuss, and what we reward.
If we ask a subset of the people to be “nice” and we do not reward them for those niceties, what does that say about our culture?
It says, “We want women stuck in their traditional roles at work. We won't reward them for those roles.”
Do you want a culture like that? I don't.
As I said, I'm fine when a team decides they want to acknowledge the humanness of the people they work with. I don't care if it's a feature or product team or a management cohort.
When the team decides, the team takes responsibility. They reward each other for that responsibility. That's very different from when a woman takes these responsibilities without management acknowledgment that those niceties take time. Extra time beyond the work time.
Decide Where to Spend Your Time
Do these niceties create meaning for you, as a human? You can spend time doing them. I add this one request: please decide if this extra work is worth your valuable time.
It is extra work. Your time at work is valuable—and your time outside of work might be even more valuable.
If you still want to spend time on the niceties, go ahead. And I wonder—if you stopped doing them, would anyone notice?
That's a question about what matters.
People Take Responsibility for What Matters
When we act on behalf of the team and create learned helplessness, we remove the responsibility from other people.
I used to say at work, “I'm not your mother or even your Jewish mother. I am one. And I'm not yours.”
The first time I said that the team looked at me with those googly-eyes. Then, the light dawned. One of the men said, “And I'm delighted you're not.” (Me too.)
I want a culture at work where people and the team take responsibility with each other. Not for each other.
This is why I recommend everyone decide what to do with those non-promotable tasks. Managers don't value that work. If you do that work, the team might recognize you. However, your managers won't.
Unlike facilitation or work that the team values, too few people value the niceties. And if they don't, why should you? Especially when the niceties don't always make the work proceed easier.
Create an office culture that focuses on the work. Decide—as a team—what you want to do about the niceties. And if you choose to celebrate as a team? Make sure the entire team contributes their time to the niceties.
To read more about cheerleading and how you can choose another path, read Practical Ways to Manage Yourself.
This is a part of the series of leadership tips.