Coworker Comment Caught You Off Guard? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a senior sales manager in a mid-sized company. I love the company, the work we do, and the people. I have been identified as a high potential. My team always hits goal, I get consistently excellent performance reviews, and I have every expectation that I will have a shot at chief revenue officer.

The company positions itself as family-friendly, which has been my experience. We all have a lot of flexibility. As long as people are available and the work gets done, nobody really cares about how. I have one child in preschool and am expecting another one. I am a fairly private person, so I didn’t share the news with anyone until it became obvious. The next thing I knew, a very senior woman in the company—a person I respect who has been a bit of a mentor to me and (not incidentally) who has a lot of influence—walked into my office and said, “I thought you were serious about your career.”

I was floored. What the heck? All I could think to say was, “Of course I am. What makes you think I’m not?” She expounded on how having one kid is fine, but having two means you will never be able to give the job everything you have. Then she said I was “signaling a lack of commitment” by having another kid!

I am so mad. I mean come on, are we still living in 1958? Many people on our executive team—all men— have multiple children. I really thought I had enough of a track record to be taken seriously despite my desire to have a family. I should note that this woman does not have children.

I find myself spiraling, constantly reliving the conversation and having pithy comebacks. I don’t know if others on the executive team have the same attitude. Now I am worried that I am sabotaging my career goals.

What should I do?

Angry and Worried


Dear Angry and Worried,

I am floored along with you. And I am sorry that someone you trusted thought that sharing their opinion at all, let alone in such a hurtful way, was a good idea.

What should you do? I have some thoughts.

First: Let. It. Go. You are obsessing, going in circles, and engaging in rumination. Rumination is defined by neuroscientists as “a form of perseverative cognition that focuses on negative content, generally past and present, and results in emotional distress.”  The more you do it, the more you create neural pathways in your brain that can become entrenched and self-perpetuating. I don’t think you need to worry about having a disorder—something was triggered in you, and you should be able to manage it. How to let it go? You can read more about rumination and how to stop it here. Most people I have worked with on this (including myself) have had success with a few different methods.

  • Get a reality check. Talk to your boss—maybe even your boss’s boss. Check out the woman’s assumptions and assess the extent to which they might be shared by others. Take the opportunity to reiterate your commitment to the company, to the work, and to your own career advancement. Just doing this may very well put your mind at rest.
  • Fight back. Meet with your HR business partner or even the CHRO if that makes sense. Get crystal clear about your rights. Share your experience and test out the possibility of lodging an official complaint against the woman for creating a hostile work environment. This may be going too far for you, and could impact you negatively if the woman has as much influence as you think—but you may get support from HR to keep this person’s assumptions from influencing others.
  • Write a letter to the woman, including all of your pithy comebacks, that you don’t send. Take the time to write it all down and get it all out of your head. This should help you to stop going in circles. There is something about writing out your thoughts that can be incredibly therapeutic.
  • Finally, remember who you are. One of my favorite quotes, attributed to multiple people, is “your opinion of me is none of my business.” Just because someone has an opinion about the ability of women to be both excellent parents and strong contributors at work doesn’t mean it is true. There are literally millions of examples that prove she is wrong. And you know yourself. You obviously believe you have what it takes.

You have allowed yourself to fall into the trap of taking something personally. It is totally normal—we all do it, and we are particularly susceptible when the offender is someone we respect. You must remember, however, that everything your former mentor said is 100% about her, and absolutely not about you. As a sales professional, I submit that you might simply turn this challenge into motivation to prove her wrong. I guess that might not be high quality motivation, but it sure works for a lot of people!

You’ve got this. Will it be easy? Probably not. Can everyone do it? Not everyone has the stamina, the ability to manage chaos, and the flexibility any woman needs to be a great mom while having a robust career. But I suspect you do.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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