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Background: I'm a senior engineer on team A who, back in February, jumped onto team B to take over a project I had zero familiarity with due to the existing lead engineer's departure. The project design phase was complete, and I was taking over the implementation phase.

Over the course of getting up to speed and pushing forward on this project, it became very clear to me that the previous lead engineer had been...pretty checked out when they were designing the solution, and there were a lot of gaps in what product had spec'd out as well. I raised issues as I found them, contributed as an individual contributor while also mentoring and guiding the more junior engineers on the team, ended up redesigning significant pieces of the project architecture, and, beside one external factor that came into play last minute (that was also due to lack of coordination in the original design phase), we largely landed it.

So typing this all up and looking back I'm thinking, you know what, could've been smoother but that's pretty good, all things considered. The junior engineers I mentored seemed generally happy to work with me, the feature is out, we have clear next steps, and we didn't break anything massive.

Here's my dilemma: Right out the gate, team B's product manager didn't like the way I communicated. We are both women. She found me abrasive. I have consistently, inside and outside of review cycles, gotten really good feedback on how I communicate - I try to keep it kind, assume best intentions, and simultaneously be honest and unafraid to raise issues. the good feedback I've gotten has been from men and women. But team B product person found me "intense" and policed my expression in really petty ways. E.g. in zoom calls I routinely would not even be saying anything and she would make comments like - "uh oh, you look intense, is everything all right?" "Jane's expression has me worried!" "uh oh, Jane looks stressed!" "uh oh, Jane found a problem!"

She eventually gave my manager feedback that I "seemed stressed" too. I was fine with trying to get a poorly managed project that I jumped into across the finish line, but to have to try to monitor the way my face looked in zoom calls and make nice constantly with her/be self deprecating about my own need to push on project details (because they hadn't been accounted for in the phase they were supposed to!) was pretty exhausting.

So now I'm back on team A and the review cycle is coming up. I do NOT want to wait for someone else to set the tone first about my communication or "stress level" or whatever.

How can I proactively and constructively break down this experience into helpful feedback? Gender expression policing is so subtle; I'm really struggling with how to communicate why this was so non-productive for me to have to deal with.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Jul 16 '20 at 12:31
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These comments serve a purpose. They are made to create a power structure: the person making them is the judge, you're the judged. Telling someone repeatedly and in public that they look tired/ stressed-out/ unfriendly/ whatever else is not subtle at all, it's bullying.

From my experience the best way to react to them is immediate and non-defensive.

So: no comments "No, I'm not stressed, why?". Instead, depending on the organizational culture, your position, personality and the tone you're confident with:

  • getting the ball back to the bully/ tone-deaf person: "Is everything ok on your side? Is there a reason why you're so preoccupied with my looks?"
  • overstated gratefulness: "You've been devoting my looks quite a bit of attention lately. I'm sooo grateful for that. It's so nice to have a person who cares about you, who actually devotes time in her busy life to others. That's really extraordinary. Thanks Tina"
  • addressing the topic directly: "I really appreciate your concern, but looking at the time, let's try to focus on the task to be completed, if that's fine for you. Bob, any update on your deliverable please?"
  • offensiveness: "No, I always look like that. Is that ok? Or do we need to discuss the topic?"
  • re-defining defensivess into a success story: "I'm horribly tired! I run 10k yesterday, beat my record actually. I'm so happy! Running always gives me this energy - I'm both super tired and feel like doing next 10k immediately. Do you do any sports Tina?"
  • humor: "It's just my face, Tina, it's just my face. Look now [doing an over-the-top silly angry face], it's even worse, isn't it?"

The key is that you should get at the steering wheel, not allow her to dictate your behavior.

Now, after this situation ended, just draw your lessons from it. If your boss accuses you of giving the impression of being overwhelmed, ask for specific examples and ideas how, according to your boss, you should have behaved. Again, you have power here. If they are a jerk, it's their decision, but you can draw your conclusions from that.

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    -1: Being abrasive is never a good answer, not even to other people's abrasiveness. – Ertai87 Jul 15 '20 at 21:02
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    @Ertai87, setting your boundaries isn't. Commenting on people's facial expressions is like commenting on someone's big nose, unattractive hairdo, obesity or wearing too tight shirts. I.e. you don't normally do that if you're professional. Yes, you can comment on someone's wearing too tight clothes if you're their boss and only in private. But not as a random colleague and in public. If you do that, you're the problem, not the person. An exception is someone looking seriously sick/ distressed. But even then a short "are you ok? do you need help?" should do, bringing it up repeatedly is bulling. – BigMadAndy Jul 15 '20 at 21:16
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    It sounds like OP's boss believes OP is distressed and is asking about it. That seems reasonable to me. It seems especially reasonable if OP is a senior person and is in the middle of a meeting; nobody wants to be that person who pushes through some policy or project despite someone being opposed to it, and then that opposed person shows their distress in other ways (e.g. "but you never asked my opinion" or "I told you so"-type conversations down the road). – Ertai87 Jul 15 '20 at 21:23
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    @Ertai87 in this particular situation, it seems that the person OP talks about is not her boss ; and when a manager believes one of their employee is distressed, the last thing they should do is bring up the problem in public, in the middle of a conference. That'd be clumsy at best. – m.raynal Jul 16 '20 at 10:03
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    @Ertai87 When someone attacks you, especially multiple times, they have chosen to be your enemy. Every creature on this planet has the right to self-defense. This doesn't mean you have to stoop to their level but it's in your rights to do so. You could also just ignore them which from their POV could be 'abrasive' but who cares. Of course in a business context it'd be smart to err on the side of least drama while still maintaining your boundaries. – HenryM Jul 16 '20 at 12:19
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What you could have done:

I really don't like the public confrontation suggested elsewhere here. If you prefer it, then you can follow that advice. In my view, this is a clear case of subtle bullying that sounds like an attempt to provoke you to disproportionate response. Don't take the bait. Send an email to that individual along the lines of:

Hi Alice, please refrain from commenting on my facial expressions during meetings.

If she brings it up again in a meeting, reply "I emailed you about this earlier, don't bring it up again." And finally, if she ignores the written and verbal warnings, escalate it to your manager:

Hi Manager, Alice on Project B is repeatedly making unwanted remarks about my appearance during meetings and has ignored multiple requests to stop this behavior. Could we have a quick meeting at [proposed time] to discuss this? Thanks, Jane

If your manager expresses skepticism about how problematic this is, then you can break it down like Kate Gregory did in her comment.

Women in the workplace are often urged to smile regardless of their feelings, and never to appear angry or disturbed, to only "ask" others to do things, usually "in a cheery way" and to encourage and cheerlead but never to order. I believe Alice is intentionally bullying me and perpetuating this expectation by constantly commenting on my facial expression in meetings. This is generally not done to men. I understand that you may struggle to understand this if you've never experienced it yourself, but please trust me when I say that it is a very real problem and needs to be addressed.

What you should do now:

It sounds like you're no longer working with Alice. Microaggressions and subtle bullying like this are hard to bring up after the fact without looking petty. I understand that this can be extremely frustrating, but I think it's better to let it go for now and take action as above if it happens again. So let's work on setting the tone. Ping your manager (or whoever makes the final decision on the review) for a quick meeting:

Hi Manager, Could we have a quick meeting at [proposed time]? I wanted to discuss my experience leading Team B and put together some goals for next year while it's still fresh in my mind. Thanks, Jane

You want to stress that you felt comfortable. Hopefully you have some real goals to lead with, then you can say something along the lines of:

I really enjoyed leading Project B, and I felt comfortable and in control. But I know that some teammates thought I was more stressed than I was, so I need to work on communication a bit more.

That's it. You don't have to mention the PM, or struggle through explaining gender expression policing if you don't want to - just say that you were comfortable, you are aware that teammates thought otherwise, and you're working on it.

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    Kate Gregory's comment is no longer visible or on front page. Comments are not permanent. You should explicitly state in your response what the steps entail. – Captain Emacs Jul 16 '20 at 13:02
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    Good answer. My only disagreement is I don't think OP needs to preemptively assign fault to themselves with, "I need to work on communication a bit more." since all other feedback they've gotten on their communication has been positive. – BSMP Jul 16 '20 at 17:00
  • I don't think that's a good solution. I don't know managers who would like to get this kind of escalations or take them seriously. And answering in private just shows the person you're not strong enough to resist in public. I don't think this would work. – BigMadAndy Jul 16 '20 at 22:17
  • @BigMadAndy No manager wants to have to deal with interpersonal conflict, but it is their job. A direct response like one you suggest to subtle bullying has a serious risk of escalating the conflict, and worse, making the OP look like the instigator. I think your notion of "not strong enough to resist in public" is a concept driven by the same culture that views these microaggressions as harmless. I care about the final consequences - I think the passive approach has a better chance of success with fewer risks than your public confrontation. – Caliver Jul 17 '20 at 2:20
  • Obviously, I felt strongly enough against the aggressive approach to draw up my own answer. It ultimately comes down to OP's preference, how close OP is to her manager, and the office's culture. – Caliver Jul 17 '20 at 2:23
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You don't have any evidence that this is a gender issue, so I would not make it one. Instead I would focus on the facts: Your colleague is making comments that are making you uncomfortable and disrupt the meetings unnecessarily.

Schedule a 1-on-1 meeting and tell you what she does and what are the consequences of that behaviour (e.g. you feel self-conscience, meetings are disrupted, other team members get a wrong impression about what you are thinking, etc.) Then ask her to stop doing it in the future.

Making it about your personal experience has the advantage that it cannot be denied or argued away.

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