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Jan 23, 2010

Disappearing Acts (book review)

Resident MBA candidate Diane Chambers files a review of Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work, by Joyce K. Fletcher, Co-director of Working Connections Project, Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Stone Center, Wellesley College.  A suggestion for those of you who enjoy the academic read, the swift pace of 21st century business history, and bringing sociology to the workplace.  Regular readers may also notice a recent theme regarding confusion between collaboration and exploitation.

This book, published in early 2001, is based on a structured observation study of female engineers in a high tech firm in the eastern U.S.

The author uncovered four relational practices that the women in the study engaged in:
1. Preserving the Project, taking responsibility for the whole and putting the project's needs ahead of job description, project scope, and career.  Engineers were described as doing what they had to do to move the project forward, even if it involved perceived menial work like data entry or soldering.

2. Mutual Empowering, whose outcome includes task completion and benefitting others through help and knowledge-sharing.

3. Self-Achieving, that is, using emotion as data and making and preserving connections.

4. Creating Team, that is, facilitating connections by listening and responding.

The author then examines about how these relational practices get "disappeared" -- that is, devalued by the organization as non-crucial to work.

First, consider the context:
When success and effectiveness are defined as autonomy and independence, a cooperative attitude is a "deviant" attitude, often attributed to powerlessness and naivete, and can signal a willingness to be exploited. Doing was is perceived as low-status (non leadership) work for the sake of the project can signal career naivete.  Facilitating connection-making is often misattributed to a "need to be liked"  rather than to a desire for cooperative achievement or the effort to work more effectively.  Most tragically (in male-dominated fields especially), female-identified traits and behaviors can be undervalued simply because they are female identified.  They are the style of the Other and sometimes the Unwanted.

Even the author interpreted relational behavior exhibited by a female engineer as indicative of a character flaw, forgetting for a moment her own hypothesis.  During a shadowing session, an engineer was observed as taking "a back seat in a meeting and let[ting] her boss talk about her data."  Joyce Fletcher writes:

I first coded this as evidence of her fear of power and success. I wrote the word "meek" in the margins of my notes. I made sense of her behavior as a type of personal inadequacy and assumed that she was uncomfortable with self-promotion or with being seen as an expert. It was not until later, when she spoke of the incident with pride and explained it was an intentional strategy on her part to give the problem increased visibility and make sure it was taken seriously, did I realize her behavior at that meeting could be understood differently. Only then did I realize that I had "disappeared" her work by labeling the behavior as inappropriate to the workplace and as evidence of her personal inadequacy.
Consider the limits of our language:
It is difficult to articulate individual achievement through relational practice. The terms are usually dichotomous. Relational attributes associated with "femininity" are marked as non-work or inappropriate to the workplace. Further, organizationally strong words exclude relational terms. (visionary, decisive, entreprenurial, risk-taking, etc) Ever see "nice" "helpful" "polite" on leadership term lists distributed by business school career offices?

The study observed that the female engineers were expected to act relationally (as women) and were devalued for doing so. In other words "relational activity is not needed and women must provide it" (p. 112).

How to Use this book
Disappearing Acts was published just as the concept of "emotional intelligence" was coming to prominence, sparking desire to develop these skills (investing in developing others, succession planning, connecting cross-functionally. Organizations were flattening (think: those surviving dot-coms).

Though her observations suggest that relational practice will be challenged by a 20th century work-culture, she also stresses that it forms the framework for transforming organizations into 21st century workplaces.  A number of strategies were proposed by Fletcher, based on her research, to further the recognition of relational practices as valuable to the workplace.

Naming - simply, calling these practices what they are.
By using a language of competence, and naming the intended value-added outcomes of relational practice and noting the relational practices that others do, organizational attention is drawn to the shift in behavior.  Cause-and-effect are articulated.  A new language is developed.  ("Let's use this meeting time to discuss the risks of this approach.  I want to be sure all departments have had their say in identifying the impacts to their goals.")

Norming - using this new open language to set new norms
Relational practice questions established organizational concepts, like what marks "good" leadership or decision-making.
Negotiating - "say yes" - PLUS identify the conditions that need to be met
Organizations can assign monetary and/or career-building value to relational competence. "Yes! I'll coordinate that focus group because I care about building community - and I'd like for that task to be valued in terms of revenue/cost saving dollars in the service of my career advancement."

Networking - another way to normalize
Organizations can foster networks to encourage and reward relational practice (inside or outside the given work environment).  In male-dominated fields, this has tended to be in the form of Women's Caucuses; in majority-dominated fields, support and strategy groups for workers of color.  These organizations have value, to be sure, and can influence the organization as a whole more effectively by using their solidarity to network externally as well as internally.

Related Posts
What do women do to sabatoge their careers?
Salary Negotiations
What should we focus on for the new year?

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