How to develop strong female friendships at work | Ladders

"The world is terrified of competent women."
Gender at Work

How to develop strong female friendships at work

August 26 is Women’s Equality Day, which means it’s a good time to look at why even women with strong female friend networks find creating strong connections with female co-workers difficult. Having close female friends in the office can sometimes be a difficult goal to navigate. However, according to a new study, when a company fosters an office environment that helps brings women together, conflict decreases and creativity soars.

Here, experts provide their best advice on how to work better with your fellow female colleagues.

Why women should befriend other women in the workplace

While developing close friendships with fellow co-workers might have been frowned upon several decades ago when women entered the workforce, Industrial-Organizational Psychology Practitioner and Workplace Expert, Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., says girl power doesn’t just have a place at cocktails, but at conference tables.

Instead of being competitive, a collaborative goal toward climbing the ladder (and smashing that glass ceiling) will help both of you succeed. And more so, knowing you have a fellow woman to talk to, bounce ideas off of and work side-by-side with encourages your confidence while expanding your skill set. And hey, after a difficult review?  They help you bounce back into action, too.

“Friends support one another during good times and tougher times. It is especially helpful to have a close friend at work who is of the same sex and who is in a similar position or pay grade because that friend can relate very closely to personal and work-related issues. For women, a female work friend can provide a different level of understanding and support than might a male work friend,” Dr. Hakim says.

In other words, co-workers of your same sex not only help you push harder at work, but also help you recover when work kicks you back.  

“I think strong friendships are essential to career growth, as much as life growth. Careers take hard work, tough choices and long-term strategies. Careers take courage. For most women, your female friends are where you’ll get hands-on empathy, support and the encouragement to take the necessary risks,” explains New York-based career coach Carlota Zimmerman.

But if you struggle with attracting, maintaining and inspiring those inner office bonds? Here, career experts offer their best advice on how to let go of your competitive, cautious side and become a supportive sister to your fellow female office mates.

You underestimate what your female assistant can do

So, you landed a job you lusted after and it comes complete with a nice, airy office, plenty of travel opportunities and an assistant.

Especially if your assistant is a woman, make sure to realistically look at her abilities because women are often underestimated. Her personality might not quite match your choice if you were hiring from scratch, but Zimmerman says to resist the urge to hold onto preconceived notions. Remember she was hired for a reason, and be generous in evaluating her abilities. This is where nurturing your thoughtful and patient nature is key.

“Women are still raised to underestimate ourselves and other women. We’ve constantly reminded of how imperfect we are. The world is terrified of competent women. If you can realize that you’re underestimating another woman, take a step back, and determine to be a game-changer: give her the benefit of the doubt,” Zimmerman suggests. “Give her the tools and support to do a great job. Give her the empathy you’d hope she’d give you.

When you feel like interrupting a co-worker in a meeting

We’ve all been there: in a day full of meaningless back-to-back ‘urgent’ discussions that could have been solved in an e-mail, a co-worker is debating another detail and you want to step in to cut her off. It’s tempting, especially when you want a solution instead of another derailment, but Dr. Hakim says to follow the ‘10-second’ rule. While this applies to any conversation you’re having – male or female – the idea is that you want to extend your colleagues that same courtesy you hope they’d give to you if you felt strongly about a project detail.

However, if her constant nitpicking, rambling and combative attitude is causing other co-workers to tune her out, instead of listening to her thoughtful opinions, Zimmerman advises to lend a gal some advice. Instead of correcting her in the moment, which can feel like a blow to her confidence, a private chat comes from a friendly, well-intended place.

Let her rant on. I’d argue this is especially true if you’re in front of other people, say at a board or office meeting,” she says. “Afterwards, when it’s just you two, you can take her aside and suggest that perhaps in future, she pre-think her comments, so as to be more focused, and professional. But interrupting and criticizing other people is rarely helpful.”

Sheryl Sandberg famously used this technique, letting a female colleague know in private that she was communicating in a way that made her look unimpressive.

When you want to pick a fight with a female co-worker

Oftentime when the throes of anger wash over you, Zimmerman says it’s likely less about the person whose head you’re prepared to chomp off, and more about external or internal frustrations you’re facing.

“Are you angry with this woman…or is she an easy target? Are you angry with that woman…or with your boss, your company, your partner, the world?” she suggests asking yourself.

And then – the kicker – consider if you want to be the type of person who spirals out of control in the office or who disrespects another woman openly in a conference room. No one wants to be perceived in that way, and your co-worker likely doesn’t deserve the negative attention.

From a personal standpoint, Zimmerman’s long tenure in TV news turned her into a type of person she didn’t want to be: “I had no problem making other women cry when they missed their deadlines. I was not troubled by likability. But along the way, I had to realize how much I loathed the person I was becoming,” she said.

If you find yourself going down the same route, it’s not that you’re upset at your female co-worker who missed a deadline or didn’t respond to your email in time, it’s that you might want to find a new job, company or possibly, career path.

When another woman gets promoted over you – and you’re jealous

You thought you were headed toward that ‘Director’ title on your team, but when March rolled around, another female at your same level snagged the honor. First and foremost, accept that it’s normal to be jealous, but punishing another team member for their success is not only immature, but could come across as petty, too, and hurt your chances of ever getting ahead.

Dr. Hakim says give yourself some breathing room by going for a walk or even heading out early for the day. After you’ve had time to mourn the loss of a promotion you thought was yours, that’s when you start figuring out your next steps.

Zimmerman says your first move is to congratulate your colleague. “When she shares her new position on social media, like it and write a comment like, ‘Congrats, you worked hard, you deserve it!’ People notice and value class acts. Within you a storm of tears and rage may be raging, but outwardly, be the better woman,” she says.

Your next effective step? Talking to your supervisor about how you can better perform and earn the position you want. Sometimes managers seek and reward those who are clear about their intentions, and if you weren’t straightforward about your goals at the company and your colleague was, that could be part of why they were given additional responsibility: they asked for it.

“Did management know that you wanted the position? Did you do the work required? Did you have the credentials? Did you have the mentoring to be able to present yourself accordingly? Spend some time studying your background. What can you learn?,” Zimmerman offers.

When you’re frustrated by another woman’s decision

No matter if your manager is a man or a woman, you might not always agree with the choices they make. No matter how often you see eye-to-eye, disagreements are part of the challenge of being human. Learn to compromise. If you don’t agree with a choice that impacted your specific project, client or career? It’s important to voice your frustration or uncertainty, but always in a professional manner. Undermining another woman not only could embarrass her, but make you appear dramatic or accusatory, too.

“Have enough respect for her and her decision to keep your discussion private. How will it help this woman, or any other woman in the office, to make better decisions if they know they’re going to savaged?,” Zimmerman says. “One day, as you continue to climb the ladder, you will have to make difficult decisions. And trust that revenge is people’s favorite dish to serve. If you have publicly disparaged other women’s decisions, don’t expect too many people to stand by you, when you have unpopular choices to make.”