Who is: Elena Kagan?

The way we’re currently discussing Elena Kagan in the media is akin to how we often deal with leadership that seems different from the traditional straight White male model. We want to know: Who is this woman nominated by President Obama to replace Justice John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court of the United States?

On Friday The Washington Post ran the headline “Is sexual identity our business, or are we a nation of busybodies?” Staff Writer Karen Tumulty explored the rumors that Kagan may be lesbian and considered the possibility that one’s sexual orientation may relate to how one engages in her work. (Full disclosure: This blog used to be called “It’s Everybody’s Business,” which is clearly our take on the issue.)

Putting aside the issue of determining her true sexual identity, we Americans are grappling with what it would mean to have a 50-year old unmarried White woman on the Supreme Court, the highest judicial body in the United States.  So many questions underlie the debate about her sexuality. Do authority and leadership only live in men? Can a woman lead effectively without attachment to a man? Can femininity and gayness coexist?

In other words, we’re working to “take in” a woman who may soon acquire a great deal of authority with which to influence our lives. During the most recent U.S. presidential election, we did the same with Barack Obama — Was he Black enough? Was Michelle too Black? Was he even born in the United States? — all in service of internally processing the prospect of being led by the first non-White President of the United States.

To bring this closer to home, we often banter fervently about new leaders in the organizations where we work. And the discussions can get intense when the leaders don’t look like traditional poster boys. It’s totally normal, we’re just doing our best to adapt and authorize these individuals to work in their formal roles.

Photo of Elena Kagan by dsearls.

Now it’s your turn for commentary. How have you and your peers dealt with the prospect of a less-traditional embodiment of leadership at work?

Phenomenon of Being “Present but Checked-Out” at Work

The first time we read the above card, we misinterpreted it and thought of being present, but checked-out at work.

What It’s Called

The term is presenteeism. It’s like absenteeism, where you’re away from the office; the significant difference however is that your body is physically present. It’s human to withdraw from time to time, so we can all relate.

A few years ago Paul Hemp wrote in the Harvard Business Review about the phenomenon, describing research on the medical issues that lead to presenteeism. For example, with limited sick leave, an employee with severe allergies may show up because his paycheck depends on it, yet he’s unable to focus on his assignments for any sustained period.

We know emotional factors can contribute to presenteeism, too. If you have a confrontation, a negative performance review, or your work is met with disapproval — to cope, you might withdraw for awhile. If you feel disenfranchised from your peers, disconnected from your task, or unsure about your role, you might manage your anxiety by disengaging.

Problem is…

Everything suffers when you withdraw from the job. You don’t feel better because you’ve avoided working towards personal resolution, and you certainly haven’t accomplished any of your formal duties.

What should you do when you fade?

First, notice when you start closing off. And then find someone you can talk to about what’s going on. They can be related to your work group, or an outsider. Being prompted to organize your thoughts around whatever you’re experiencing, and identify your feelings will bring you to the present. From there, it’s all hope — that you’ll learn about yourself, about the environment, and how to continue working through sometimes self-imposed obstacles.

Those eCards

Back to Someecards. We won’t explain the caption, because you probably got it upon first read. There’s a whole section of ecards with workplace themes, and many are funny. The acerbic humor is founded on a decidedly straight White male perspective, although you can write-in your own captions.We’re not creative enough to try, yet.

Have you experienced presenteeism at work? How did you deal with it?

Come Out at Work: As a Non-Drinker

This is the first in a series called “Come Out at Work.”

Following is a true story, with names changed — actually, we never caught the names in the first place. So here goes:

Jerome is a banker in a multinational financial services firm. He prefers not to drink alcohol, yet one day his business group goes out to a nearby bar, and he joins them because they’re pleasant to be with. Plus he knows that outside the office is where helpful, informal data surfaces about his projects.

When it comes time to order a drink, he ponders for a moment, then orders the microbrew on tap. His boss Sandy comes around and asks, “What’re you drinking?”

“The microbrew,” he responds. Sandy orders one, too.

Jerome doesn’t finish his beer, while Sandy orders a second and third, grateful that Jerome has introduced her to this delicious libation.

The following weekend, it’s Jerome’s birthday and he’s having a mellow celebration with his family at home. The doorbell rings, and a delivery person hands him a box marked “Microbrew of the Month.” As Jerome leaves the package in the entryway, unsure what to do with it, he reads the attached card “Happy Birthday to our favorite microbrew fan! -Your officemates.”

On Monday his colleagues are eager to see him. “Did you get anything this weekend?” Pat, the office manager, inquires.

“Yes, I did. And it was very kind! Thank you for the thoughtful microbrews!”

“And?” asks Pat.

“And?” says Jerome, bewildered.

“Yeah, and… how did they taste?”

“Oh! Wicked good, of course,” Jerome lies as he looks at the wall.

For each of the next eleven months, he receives a new 12-pack, and stores them in his basement. In time he gets wise and gives them away as gifts to his neighbors and friends, striving to avoid any further conversation about brews at work.

What to Do?

So what’s the problem here? Jerome is a closeted relative teetotaler, so his colleagues misunderstand him, and he chooses to go along with a charade about who he is, largely because his officemates were well-intentioned and generous in offering him a birthday present. To be fair, nobody’s at fault here. Jerome wants to join his workmates in an activity they enjoy, demonstrating how he fits in with the group. And we can’t criticize his team members for honoring his birthday, and working with the little they know about him to come up with a suitable gift.

Still, is there harm in what’s going on? We think so. Lying never feels good, and Jerome and his coworkers miss out on the opportunity to bond around the real gratitude he feels for their benevolent gesture. He feels compelled to present a version of himself that’s untrue, which in the end detracts from his work obligations.

What should he have done differently? When at the bar, aside from ordering a seltzer–which could feel incongruous to his peers’ behavior–he might add that he typically doesn’t drink with an optional short explanation. To refrain from socializing at the bar is not an option, as it may hurt his professional development.

Do you think there’s something Jerome can do at this point to be understood better as a person with preferences that may not align with his peers’? Have you had a similar experience as Jerome? Comment below.

Nobody’s Daughter

We can’t help ourselves, we have to talk about Hole’s new album Nobody’s Daughter, which we love love love! Courtney Love is so naked in her work, her soul shines through her words and many of her live performances.

OK, not so much in the one we saw at Terminal 5 on April 28, but certainly in this video clip. “For Once in Your Life” is about her deceased husband, rock god Kurt Cobain, and it may be my favorite track from the album.

We could say “well, Courtney’s an artist, and an artist’s task is to bare the truth.” Yet there’s artistry in everyone’s work; your task is to find it in your own.

How does artistry show up in your work? Claim it in the comments.