Sorry Honey, that damsel in distress act isn’t working for you

employee empowerment

Few things are more frustrating than watching a competent women act as though she weren’t. Now, I’m the first to make self-deprecating jokes whenever I say or do something bone-headed, but I’m talking about women who deliberately act incompetent so they can pull a damsel in distress act to get what they want. This is frustrating to see any time, but in a work environment it can be maddening.

As women, this is something we learn early on; by the time we’re toddlers we have our fathers wrapped around our little fingers using precisely this technique. As time goes by, some of us shed this system of getting what we want and some of us don’t. It’s hard to blame women who keep this up through adulthood – because it works. Well, at least in the short term.

Young women are particularly guilty of this in the work place (the older we get the less effective, so eventually we have no choice but to try another tack). They are still well versed in the method from childhood and it provides a good mask for their insecurities about their competency and inexperience. Typically they have success with at least some of their co-workers or managers, which provides enough encouragement to keep it up.

But here’s where they run into problems:  Many of these same young women are desperately trying to prove themselves competent and someone worth taking seriously. But as hard as we may try, we can’t have it both ways.

It’s natural to talk and act slightly different towards and with different people, but you have to maintain some sort of consistency with how you conduct yourself at work. For this basic fact – people talk. You may act very competent and on-the-ball around your boss, but if you turn around and act like a helpless little girl to your coworkers, the word will eventually get back to the boss and he’ll start second guessing his impression of you. You will begin to be viewed as unreliable and inconsistent as a person and that perception will seep into people’s opinions of your work quality and competence.

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to be on guard and maintain some perfectly crafted version of themselves at all times at work. Certainly we should all be able to be ourselves in an environment that we spend so much of our lives in. I am suggesting that, whether acting like a damsel in distress, maliciously gossiping, or using any other blatantly manipulative technique to form alliances or get what you want may work out great in the short term, but in the long run, it will be much more difficult for you to develop a reputation of someone with a good head on her shoulders and worth listening to when she speaks.

Ultimately, this type of behavior generally stems from a lack of confidence in your ability to do the work. But you were hired for a reason, so even if you are inexperienced, be confident in the fact that you can pay attention and focus, and therefore learn quickly. You’re going to make mistakes, but you can learn from them and move on. Trust the people around you to recognize that the way you recover from a failure says far more about your character than the incident itself. And most importantly, always play the long game.


2 responses to “Sorry Honey, that damsel in distress act isn’t working for you

  1. The damsel-in-distress act is an interesting and oft-seen phenomenon, not only in the workplace but in public life too. While quite a bit of the ‘oh, I don’t know how to do that….’ behavior is common to both genders, it seems to work particularly well for the female, especially when many (eligible?!) males are around. It is ironical that in this age where women’s rights and equality are being fought for so aggressively, we also have the damsel-in-distress acts occurring regularly!

    • Thanks for the comment! You’re right, both genders are guilty, but to me it’s more infuriating to see women do it, precisely for the reason you stated. Our mothers and grandmothers fought hard for equality and, to me, pretending to be incompetent or helpless shows a certain lack of gratitude for their efforts. That being said, on the other side of the argument, if it didn’t work, women wouldn’t continue to do it.

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