The Sunday Mail
Women & Leadership Maggie Mzumara
When 38-year-old Kundai Munongwi (not her real name) was singled out for promotion at a company she had worked for for six years and had enjoyed the camaraderie, support and friendship of four close fellow women colleagues, all hell broke loose.
All of a sudden she was not embraced as one of the girls anymore.
Her relations with them deteriorated overnight and it was as if she was now an outcast.
It felt as if she had sold out.
Before long, the secrets and indiscretions she had shared in confidence with her four colleagues leaked and littered the office rumour mill.
It became office fodder for anyone to discuss, judge and disparage her.
Instead of supporting her, her friends seemed bent on soiling her reputation as well as undermining her authority and credibility as manager and new leader of the team.
Her crime? Being promoted over her colleagues.
It was as if she was being punished for rising.
Nancy Zondo (also not her real name) can relate.
When the 47-year-old Ruwadzano woman was nominated to be head of the women’s guild of her church, that was the beginning of her own journey of isolation.
She lost the woman she considered to be her best friend on that very day. Their relationship became frosty.
Things would never be the same again.
It was as if her friend felt slighted that she had risen above her.
Power dead-even rule
According to Pat Heim and Susan Murphy, authors of the book “In the Company of Women: Turning Workplace Conflict into Powerful Alliances”, such behaviour from fellow women is quite common.
Women are often cruel to each other when they see another woman accomplish a difficult task such as getting a promotion.
This is because the promoted woman has inadvertently broken the “power dead-even rule”.
This is a phenomenon that manifests mostly among women that demand balance in relationships, power and self-esteem.
If a woman is promoted over other women in her circle, she violates this rule and is punished with indirect forms of aggression such as gossip, sniping, snubbing and withholding of friendship and companionship.
Heim and Murphy — veterans of Fortune 500 companies — say they decided to write the book when they realised that “women consistently failed to support other women and even actively undermined their authority and credibility”.
The import of the power dead-even rule is that for two women to forge a positive relationship, their self-esteem and power must be kept “dead even”.
When one woman gets more power — through a promotion, for example — it sets off tensions.
Women sometimes try to redress those status differences, the authors say, through hostility and sniping.
Not everyone, however, agrees with Heim and Murphy.
Some women do support each other, while others argue that relations between fellow women are no different than those among men.
Psychologist Dorothy Cantor, the author of “Women in Power: The Secrets of Leadership”, is one such.
She says, “Women don’t all get along with each other any more than men all get along with each other. There are so many other factors besides our gender that influence how we deal with each other.”
Women own worst enemies
Others find truth in what Murphy and Heim claim.
Susan Estrich, A law professor at the University of Southern California and author of “Sex and Power”, says,
“There’s not a successful woman today who doesn’t know that sometimes women are your best friends and sometimes they are your worst enemies.”
What to do?
“It just might be time to stop focusing on getting even and spend more time working together to get ahead,” says one woman who has been on the receiving end of malice from colleagues following her own promotion.
To avoid perpetuating this phenomenon either as perpetrators or as naïve victims, women need to firstly be aware that this rule exists.
Simply being aware of this rule is the first step in learning to manage this situation more effectively.
Additionally, there is need for strategies to balance the power.
If you see that you have a higher level of power and self-esteem than your peers, step up and do the work to reset the power level in the relationship.
Don’t flaunt power
Try not to flaunt your power in the eyes of other women.
Allow fellow women to see for themselves the fact that you received the promotion honestly and fairly, including demonstrating beyond doubt that you have the competency for it.
Where your fellow women need assistance, offer it.
Where it is not welcome, don’t force it on them.
However, be firm in your leadership.
Be consistent in your delivery and empathy towards them.
Try and ignore any sniping and desist from retaliating.
Show colleagues that you believe in their work and help them to see how their contributions are highly valued in the organisation.
Where you can, if it is in your power to do so, give colleagues special assignments that provide them with the ability to demonstrate their own skills in a highly visible way in the organisation.
If you keep at this, and with much patience and a very thick skin, with time colleagues will reset their perception of power in the situation.
In the event that you have been the “slighting” colleague, firstly be honest with yourself and admit yours is a case of jealousy, envy or both.
Once you establish that within yourself, try to see if there is anything you can learn at all from your colleague that got her promoted.
Instead of “hating” her, perhaps there are some things you could learn from her in order to position yourself for your own promotion when the opportunity presents.
Know and acknowledge that sniping, spreading rumours and other stuff are not only childish, but backhanded and downright embarrassing.
They reduce your standing in the grand scheme of things.
Stand in your dignity and integrity and remember above all that if anything, your colleague needs support.
Remember, too, that one day this could be you.
How would you wish to be treated?
Transitioning into leadership positions is hard enough for anyone without having to endure aggression and backlash for it.
◆ Maggie Mzumara is a leadership, communication and media strategist as well as corporate trainer. She advocates women leadership and is founder of Success in Stilettos (SiS) Seminar Series, a leadership development platform for women. Contact her on [email protected] or follow on Twitter @magsmzumara