By: Pat Heim, PhD. | Tammy Hughes | Latitia S. Lattanzio, PhD, NCSP

Neal Nixon’s Dilemma:

I lead the marketing team at a large tech company. Bar none, Olivia is my best employee! She consistently produces high-quality work and has extremely good working relationships with her colleagues. So when it came time to decide who to promote, it was an easy decision for me.

Olivia’s female colleagues are now her direct reports, but they’ve started coming to me with complaints. In fact, their complaints are mostly about Olivia. One colleague claimed that Olivia was “bossing everybody around.” Another challenged that Olivia “didn’t have as much experience” as the others on the team. Several have asked why they didn’t have the opportunity to interview for the position.

I just can’t figure out what went wrong. Before I made this promotion decision, I felt like everything was running smoothly around here. What have I done?

The Problem: 

A major difference in the male and female cultures is how power is used and perceived. When a woman behaves as if she has more power than another woman (even if she does) this can create significant problems between them. We call this the Power Dead-Even Rule. Businesses, by their very nature, are hierarchies and this can be confusing for women who often unconsciously expect more equality with other women—including their bosses!



The Tips for Neal: 
  • Recognize that the problem is not in promoting Olivia, specifically. Rather, you have upset the power balance by promoting one female above other females.
  • Listen closely for the WHY. When employees are complaining to you about Olivia, consider whether these same complaints would be made about a man. Understanding the WHY can assist in diffusing the conflict.
  • Become behavior focused when Olivia’s colleagues are complaining. Asking the complainants  for specific behavior examples can assist in problem-solving. If necessary, point out that these behaviors were previously acceptable when coming from a male.
  • The team would benefit from understanding the Power Dead-Even Rule so they can recognize what’s driving this behavior. Schedule time to introduce this concept to the group, perhaps by a third party
  • Look for ways to signal to the group that you support Olivia’s leadership.
  • Don’t facilitate the complaining for long. You risk undermining her new authority if you become the complaint department. Instead, direct the complainants to their new leader, Olivia.