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Are You Doing Invisible Work?

In September, the Women's Initiative Forum hosted a fascinating discussion with Joyce Fletcher on the subject of Invisible Work. Her article Invisible Work: The Disappearing of Relational Practice at Work can be downloaded here.

Dr. Fletcher started the discussion by stating that relational skills are needed in today's workplace, and women are well positioned to operate in that way in the global economy. Unfortunately there is a disconnect - there is acceptance that those skills are needed, but in practice they often aren't seen as work, and are therefore invisible.

Her research showed that:

  • Women often used relational skills intentionally and strategically to support the work; it wasn't about being nice. However, often the people who work this way aren't seen as having leadership potential.

  • The relational work may get "disappeared" because people misinterpret the intention. It is seen as thoughtful or nice, not strategic. Even the language used to describe the work tends to feminize or soften it. Words like helping, caring, sharing are not seen as strong (like competent, for example). It is seen as something women do because they like to do it, and conflated with femininity or motherhood. The problem with being seen as motherly is that there's no sense of reciprocity with mothers so a woman who is collaborative might be expecting reciprocity, but if her behavior is conflated with motherhood, that may not be the expectation of the other person.

  • If you are female but don’t have a lot of relational skills, you get into a double bind.

The implications are that women who adopt a more masculine model, will pay a price because of the double bind, and won't be as effective because relational skills are required in today's work environment. On the other hand, women who adopt a relational model, may feel like they're doing two jobs - their "real job" and the relational work.

The solution is to do the relational work when it is appropriate to do so, and have it be seen as work, so it enhances your leadership. Here are some strategies for making that work visible and strategic:

  • Name the behavior – Explain that you aren’t doing it to be nice, you’re doing it to be effective
  • Norm the behavior – Relate the relational work to team or company norms
  • Negotiate – Claim the value of the relational work and negotiate appropriate recognition
  • Network – Ask the people in your network to support your stance that the work is valuable and strategic, and also stand up for others who are doing relational work

Have you been able to make your relational work visible and valued? We’d love to hear your story. Contact me at Elisa.vanDam@simmons.edu

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