Advice: My Male Co-Workers Argued with Me While I was Performing Surgery

Advice: My Male Co-Workers Argued with Me While I was Performing Surgery

Dear Shaunti:

As the new medical director at a large hospital and top surgeon, I am a qualified woman with excellent experience in the medical field and in management. But I seem to be having a really hard time with my male coworkers since I was promoted. I work with a lot of men and have to make tough decisions quickly while on the surgery floor. Recently, two of my male counterparts argued with me over a decision. When I raised my voice and came right back at them with my response, they shut down and now are calling me “unreliable” as a leader. I am competent and THE final decision maker at the end of the day, and furious that they don’t seem to see a woman as a reliable leader. How can I get them to honor my authority on the tough calls and have the type of good working relationship that is needed at the same time? 


Dr. Management Help

Dear Dr. Management Help,

Well, first, I’m stunned that they would argue with you in surgery, since I assume that as your subordinates in a quick-decisions atmosphere, they should be jumping when you say jump. Which makes me wonder what you mean by “arguing.” I don’t know much about the medical field, but if they were trying to raise a standard, legitimate question and felt like you shut them down that could account for their skepticism of your leadership.

Be that as it may, however, there’s a more crucial big-picture issue to tackle. As I read your question, I highly doubt that they don’t see a WOMAN as a reliable leader but that they don’t see YOU as a reliable leader. And since you seem to have excellent qualifications and this problem only arose since your promotion, the likely problem is how you’re communicating. Presumably without realizing it, you’re conveying a lack of respect for your colleagues.

Avoiding disrespect is important for any working relationship but it is absolutely essential for men. Both at work and at home, a man’s greatest need is to know that those around them respect, trust, and appreciate them.   And the thing that is guaranteed to cause them the greatest pain is feeling disrespected or inadequate in front of others. You may only have intended to assert your authority and move on quickly, but by raising your voice and shutting them down in the way you did, you probably humiliated them in front of the rest of the surgery staff. And that sort of situation is likely to make anyone – man or woman — lose respect for someone as a leader.

In my research with men, you might be interested in a few candid responses about what a woman might do that is guaranteed to indicate disrespect:

–       Come off as haughty.

–       Making sure you know that she’s in charge.

–       Being “bossy” – which usually means she orders people around as if they were not worthy of careful handling.

–       Being too forceful in expressing her opinions or work ideas, in an effort to make sure they are accepted by men. Which usually backfires.

The reality is that you don’t need to “assert” your authority: you already HAVE authority. You don’t need to make sure others know you are in charge: you ARE in charge.   But since it now sounds like your male coworkers are worried about that, be ultra-purposeful about how you communicate, especially in high-stress situations. Be firm, but calm. Use an even, matter-of-fact tone. If you need to disagree, say “I hear your concerns, but this is what we are going to do now.” If there is something that needs to be addressed personally, do it in private and not in front of other coworkers.

It may not seem “fair” that you have to be careful about your communication style, but being a true leader means leading well in the situation as it is, rather than how you wish it would be. By being purposeful about demonstrating respect for those over whom you have authority, you are far more likely to be the type of leader they want to follow for years to come.



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