I’m a 50-year-old man, currently Vice President of Sales at a company where I’ve worked for 25 years with consistently excellent feedback—zero complaints or problems on my record. Now, however, I find myself in a world of trouble and completely unsure how to handle it.
I recently hired a terrific account manager for my team, a dynamic and intelligent young woman. At a meeting several weeks ago, she was complaining about a customer by whom she felt dismissed. In trying to support her, I said that “it’s not unusual for young, attractive women to struggle to be taken seriously.” I was about to give some suggestions when she got up and walked out of the room. No explanation. I later got a text from her saying she had gone home for the day because she was so upset by my comment.
From my perspective, I’ve spent my career supporting women, knowing—especially in the sales industry—it can be difficult. My comment was utterly well-intended, and I’m both surprised and anxious about the situation. I’ve never been here before; how do I approach this situation and make it right?
First, let’s unpack this. Your question tells us that:
- You are struggling with the gap between your intention and your impact.
- Having been at a senior level in the workplace for so long, you may not be fully aware of the cultural zeitgeist of the moment, and the evolving expectations for leaders’ behavior.
So, exactly how is your problem a power problem? A few thoughts:
- You are in a position of power, yet you assumed that your intent would be understood by those beneath you.
- You underestimated the power of your position, gender, and race, and how it amplifies your words.
What’s the Solution?
To be able to respond effectively, you’ll need to “step away” for a moment. Zoom out from your perspective and just imagine the impact your comment had on her, from her perspective, without justifying or explaining yourself.
After reflection, a good first step is to apologize. Tell her, truthfully, that you were totally unaware of the impact your words could have, and you are sorry. Be careful not to go into explanation mode, telling her what you “really meant.” This can have the effect of undoing the apology. If she is open to further conversation, you could simply let her know that you genuinely want to help her with her customers and ask how you can help moving forward.
Lastly, we recommend contacting HR to let them know what happened; they might have a useful suggestion for you.
The good news is, you are not your mistakes. If you can navigate the situation without getting defensive, this will turn out to be an excellent growth and learning opportunity. When you know better, you do better! Good luck.