I just got out of a big meeting where one of my male co-workers got super annoyed with me and I don’t know why. We’re trying to land a big contract and he was presenting his strategy to the group and our boss. A couple of times, I politely asked why he came to a particular decision, so he could explain it. I felt like everyone would benefit from the clarification. But the last time I asked why he did such-and-such, he almost snapped at me. I felt smacked down in front of the group, just for doing the right thing and trying to get clarity. So now I’m really ticked too. What happened here and how can I solve it?
– Ticked and Puzzled
Dear Ticked and Puzzled-
Would you mind if I rolled my eyes at you right now?
Well, guess what? How you would feel if I rolled my eyes– embarrassed, challenged, demeaned — is pretty much what your co-worker felt when (in his mind) you challenged him about his reasoning in front of not only the team but (ahem) his boss.
I’m sorry, sister: I want to be all girl-power in there with you, but you messed up. You didn’t intend to, of course… but the damage is done.
Let me explain how men are wired in this area and how a guy (not just your co-worker but all the other guys in the room) probably perceived you and your question.
You see, in every area of life, men look confident but doubt themselves. Actually, in my research with male professionals for The Male Factor, three out of four said that their confident exterior is just hiding what they described as an “impostor complex.” Inside is this feeling: I want to do a great job at this… but someone is going to discover that I don’t know what the heck I’m doing…
So while your colleague is standing at the whiteboard presenting his reasoning and strategy, he’s got all this unseen self-doubt under the surface.
Now, picture what is likely going on internally when you raise your hand and ask: “Bob, why did you come to that decision?”
No matter how polite the tone, the guy is likely thinking, I can’t believe she is challenging me in front of the whole team. Instead of viewing you as someone simply gathering information, he sees you as someone who is doubting his decision-making skills in front of his peers. And boss.
You may think that this guy is being incredibly oversensitive. And of course, he was in the wrong to snap at you in front of the team too. But if you do want a good go-forward relationship it is always helpful to do exactly what you are doing: try to understand what you might have done that hit him wrong, and address it.
Going forward, it will help to recognize that men and women really do have two different types of insecurities and hot buttons at times. Statistically, we as women have plenty of insecurities of our own – but the impostor complex isn’t generally one of them!
You’ll be amazed at the difference that will occur if you simply ask the same exact question in a different way. “Bob, help me understand how you came to this particular decision; I’m still not clear on it.” That is important for asking questions of either men or women in front of a group, by the way. It is seen as expressing confidence that, “I know you have thought this through and have a reason for this,” and thus is seen as truly just asking for more information.
If you want to fix your relationship with your male colleague, it might help to go into his office tomorrow and find an excuse to say “Great job on the McCants presentation. Hey, I apologize if it seemed like I was challenging you. I truly was just trying to understand, but perhaps I should have handled it differently.” You may even want to look for an opportunity in the next group meeting to oh-so-casually talk about something your colleague did really well.
That may seem like overkill. But trust me: a little genuine affirmation will always go a long way.
Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and relationships, including For Women Only, For Men Only and her newest, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages. A Harvard-trained social researcher and speaker, her ﬁndings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times.