"I cannot stand to disappoint him. It goes way beyond doing my best. It's doing my best with a claw in my chest." -- Third year associate, speaking of the law partner to whom she is assigned.
"He's my profile: talented, arrogant, picky. Married of course, and I'm not going that route. But I'm smiling up at him like I'm Princess Diana, and the thing is, I don't even like him. I can't seem to help myself."
-- Vice-President for Global Sales, referring to one of her fast track direct reports.
It's an invisible emotional puppet string. When a certain kind of man yanks it, a certain woman responds. It might well be for better - assuming she's on to her own quick response and can make it work for her. More frequently though, it's for worse - making her an anxious, overeager, puppy of a good girl.
Of course there are many varieties of good girl, not all of whom have this same visceral response to a dominant man. This discussion focuses on one discrete variety - the good girl at the office who has been trained since childhood to rush to please an alpha male.
That alpha male is possibly, but not necessarily, her boss. His job title could make him leader of the pack by definition, but to qualify as an authentic, button-pressing Alpha, a man requires the manner more than the office. Stereotypically he is professionally successful, notably assertive,remarkably self-absorbed and wildly self-confident. He doesn't need a tie or title; this good girl knows without naming it when she is in his presence. Her reaction feels hard wired.
This Alpha male is not always abusive to his underlings or impatient with his colleagues,especially if he is senior enough to have experienced the 360s that have taught him to tone it down. But he has been known to get away with displays of temper, and many women in the office give way to tears after harsh encounters. The vulnerable good girl of whom we speak prides herself on not allowing herself to cry, not knuckling under, not allowing herself to be intimidated. Instead she works to stand up to him, to maintain a professional level of excellence and an unyielding repartee.
This composed demeanor may well work to disguise her vulnerability from her co-workers, or even from the man himself. But inwardly that good girl is paying the price of unwarranted anxious striving.
If you are this good girl, you may or may not recognize yourself here. For one thing, you may be in a position of authority yourself. One woman, a highly trained thoracic surgeon, took years to identify her own response. "I am tough, strong, talented and the truth is, I turn into a fearful pleaser around a certain kind of man. In my case, he would always be another surgeon, someone highly respected with a difficult personality and a peerless track record. In my residency, it was the surgical chief. I told myself I was jumping through hoops to win the spot of Chief Resident. But the truth was, I would have worked any hours, taken any horrible assignment, to win the regard of this man, this brilliant cranky, impossible to please man. I took me two more fixations on exactly the same kind of guy before I was on to myself. Put me in a room with a successful man to whom I have to prove myself and now I will no longer work to death to do it. I think."
The motivation to work yourself to death is not all bad if you are seeking corporate leadership or surgical chops. But the anxiety that usually accompanies that driving commitment can be corrosive. "I was proud to be chosen by an architect of his stature as his go-to person on a pet project." said one woman, a highly regarded architect in her own right. "But every brusque, demanding e-mail he sent made me sick when I opened it. And I never knew how to say No, set a limit or stick up for myself. These are not normally weaknesses of mine."
As is so often the case, a personal weakness is the shadow side of some great strength. The ability to win the professional approval of an Alpha male is a career skill frequently helpful to the successful advancement of both men and women, because Alphas often have the power to influence our careers. There is nothing inherently wrong, exploitive or abusive about that truth. (Stop thinking David Letterman. Instead, think serious, dedicated workplace mentor.) Working hard, earning a living while making a contribution and all the while pleasing those with power to improve our circumstances is what we are all trying to do. It's healthy and functional.
But our good girl is trying harder than most in response to one particular kind of colleague. She is working in a more emotionally driven way, less in her conscious control. She's on emotional automatic pilot, working to win the regard of a person who may not even be the most appropriate object of her efforts. She may be over-investing and her ROI is often nothing more than stomach churning dread.
The next lesson in Irrational Expertise helps you recognize whether you are at either end of this relationship. And what you might get out of staying right there.