Wives, Woes and Good Work: Untangling the Contradictions

Commentary on Wives of the Organization exploring how relational practice can become invisible work

Joyce K. Fletcher
Distinguished Research Scholar
Center for Gender in Organizations, Simmons School of Management
Email: joyce.fletcher@simmons.edu

© Copyright 2008-2009 Joyce K. Fletcher. All rights reserved.

January 2008, revised December 2009

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Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose


Relational practice refers to the strategic use of relational skills such as emotional and social intelligence to do good work and accomplish organizational goals. This paper explores how relational practice, through its conflation with stereotypical images of femininity, can become "invisible work" and present special problems and contradictions for women. It details the disappearing acts that render relational practice invisible and offers specific strategies practitioners can use to address the problems and contradictions this presents.

Keywords: Invisible work, relational practice, women's work, disappearing acts, emotional intelligence, women and power


I remember well reading this paper more than a decade ago. It was one of those papers that had a vibrant life in the feminist underground. Before the days of emailed attachments it was photocopied again and again, passed from colleague to colleague. In my own institution, I received it from a faculty colleague, put a copy in the mailroom and soon women in the department at all levels, secretaries, faculty, administrators were buzzing about its content. But even then, it was a paper that created a bewildering set of reactions/emotions.

Certainly I experienced laughter, recognition, and gratitude at having a phenomenon named that I had experienced and was, indeed, researching at the time. But there was also a sense of confusion at the deeply felt ambivalence threaded through the argument and recommendations.

On the one hand, there was advice to stop doing these wifely activities. Act more like men for example, by saying no to projects regardless of how important they were to the institution if being involved in them meant we would not be able to do work important to our career.

On the other, there was a recognition that this advice to act more like men was not without its problems. Gendered expectations about women’s role in life meant that our behavior would be judged by different standards with different effects. Behavior that smacked of careerism in men might be tolerated, but saying “no” to something good for the institution but bad for one’s tenure dossier held special risks for women.

And it wasn’t only your career that might suffer if you “acted more like men”. The paper acknowledged that when truly valuable relational activities were abandoned and not taken up by anyone else in the work group, the work itself was likely to suffer.

Yet and on the third hand the exasperated undertones of the paper seemed to say, even if this was valuable work, why should we be the ones to care? Why should women silently and invisibly do work that was good for the organization but was unlikely to be recognized or rewarded? Hadn’t we played Pollyanna enough?

The world has changed a lot in the years since this paper was presented and we understand a lot more about the gendered dynamics Huff so brilliantly articulated in this early paper. In this commentary I will use my own work in relational practice and the phenomenon I call the “disappearing dynamic” to unpack some of the dilemmas presented in this paper and strategize ways to address them that are good for women and good for our institutions. I will address three questions:

  1. Why, if relational work is valuable to an organization, does it so often go unrewarded?
  2. What are the means by which valuable work is rendered invisible, or in the language I have used, “disappeared”?
  3. How can we tell if we are engaging in relational work that is adding value (Relational Practice) or relational work that is not (Relational Malpractice)?

Why, if relational work is valuable to an organization, does it so often go unrewarded?

One of the things that has changed in the years since this paper was presented is the strong link between relational work and organizational effectiveness, especially organizational learning. The trend Huff noted of a greater need for relational skills in organizations is now widely accepted. Indeed, current models of effective leadership eschew old heroic, individualistic command and control behavior and instead, focus on the importance of teamwork, collaboration and what Jane Dutton and others call “high quality connections” (Dutton, 2003, Dutton &Heaphy, 2003) in the workplace.

These high quality connections require maintenance, relational competence and what is now commonly called “emotional intelligence” (Goleman, 1998) or more recently, “social intelligence (Goleman, 2006). Interestingly, despite the importance of these relational skills to organizational learning and effectiveness, they are rarely noted as leadership skills in practice (Fletcher & Kaeufer, 2003) and as a result, often go unrecognized and unrewarded.

What accounts for the invisibility of relational leadership practices? Huff’s paper begins to give us an answer. As she describes, relational skills and attributes like collaboration, sharing and teamwork tend to be aligned in our mind’s eye with the enactment of women’s social role of wife and mother. And she notes that using these skills has not been the traditional route to the top for women or men.

My own work in the disappearing of relational practice suggests that there is an even more subtle dynamic at play (Fletcher, 1999). The traditional devaluing and invisibility of relational work is one vehicle through with the feminine itself is devalued in society, and a key force in maintaining patriarchic power dynamics.

Thus, when individuals “do” relational practice they run the risk of being perceived as “doing femininity”, something which associates them with a low-power position in a patriarchal system. These gender/power dynamics complicate the practice of relational competence, exerting pressure to reconstruct stories of organizational effectiveness in order to distance oneself from relational femininity and instead, align oneself with traditional images of power and leadership (Fletcher, 2004). Thus, even though the rhetoric around relational skills and attributes has changed over the years and implications for organizational effectiveness and learning are clear, the underlying gender/power dynamics are still in place. These dynamics act as one powerful force to keep the work invisible and unrewarded.

Gender is not the only culprit in this story of the invisibility of relational practice. Another change that has occurred in the last 15 years is our understanding of how gender dynamics are linked to power and other aspects of social identity. Today we have a greater appreciation of how gender dynamics affect men as well as women and how they can interact with other aspects of social identity such as race, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

When Huff presented this paper it was common for academics to universalize women and minimize the differences among us in order to highlight the differential impact of gendered work cultures (Acker, 1990). But all women are not the same and universalizing them ignores these differential experiences.

In the same vein, all men are not exemplars of traditional masculinity and the gender dynamics inherent in relational practice can affect them as well. Therefore, it is important to recognize how gender dynamics intersect with a more general power dynamic to further diminish the likelihood that relational competence will be recognized and rewarded.

As Jean Baker Miller notes in her landmark book Toward a New Psychology of Women (1976) in systems of unequal power (e.g. inequities based on race, class, organizational level, sex) it behooves those with less power to be ultra-sensitive and attuned to the needs, desires and implicit requests of the more powerful. In other words, in systems of unequal power, people who have less power will, by necessity, be more likely to have highly developed relational skills. This inappropriately associates the skills and behaviors of relational practice not only with femininity but also with powerlessness and vulnerability (Bartolome & Laurent 1988; Fletcher, 2004, Kanter, 1977).

Recognizing these gender/power dynamics inherent in relational practice is important for two reasons. First, it helps us understand, at a systemic level, why traditional images of competence and effectiveness are so resilient and why relational competence is still risky to enact, even if it is good for the organization: The rhetoric about leadership and learning may have changed, but the association of relational practice with femininity and powerlessness remains a powerful – albeit largely invisible – force, undermining the rhetoric and influencing the stories people choose to remember and tell about their own and others’ behavior.

Giving voice to these underlying dynamics can rescue them from invisibility and make them discussible, thereby interrupting the dynamic and creating an opportunity for change. And because the dynamics are systemic rather than simply individual, it moves the discussion away from women blaming themselves for what is happening.

The second reason it is important to recognize these more general power dynamics is that it complicates the story of “wives” of the organization in significant ways. Recognizing gender/power dynamics is an antidote to the tendency to universalize and creates an opportunity to explore the concept of relational practice from a perspective Holvino (2004) calls simultaneity: the simultaneous effects and interactions of multiple dimensions of social identity on behavior and perceptions of behavior. So, for example, the concept of simultaneity would move us to ask how “wives of the organization” dynamics would play out for women of color.

How, for example, are these dynamics experienced by Asian American women who may be expected to be quiet, more passive and less assertive than Anglo women. For African American women – and men – it would invite us to explore the intersection of race and gender in the historical context or racial oppression in this country. How, for example, are the gender/power dynamics inherent in that legacy experienced by African Americans who may be expected to be subservient and non-assertive? Exploring questions such as these has the potential to advance the discussion of relational practice in significant ways, broadening its scope to include a range of societal norms and expectations (beyond the social role of wife) that affect the devaluing of relational work.

What are the means by which valuable relational work is rendered invisible or “disappeared”?

In researching the phenomenon of the invisibility of relational effectiveness I found three distinct “disappearing acts” that marginalize relational practice: The misunderstanding of motive, the limits of language, and the conflation of relational practice with idealized motherhood and femininity. Understanding the specific ways relational practices are rendered invisible is important because when we understand these dynamics and how they work, we are more likely to be able to interrupt them and make some headway in strategizing the issues Huff raised.

Misunderstanding the motive

The first disappearing act is to misinterpret why someone would be enacting relational practice. Although it is often motivated by a desire to work more effectively, relational practice can be (mis)understood as a personal idiosyncrasy or trait. These traits sometimes have a negative connotation, such as naiveté, powerlessness, weakness or emotional need. But they may also be more positive, as when relational practice is seen as an expression of thoughtfulness, personal style, or being nice.

Take, for example, the team member Huff describes who puts effort into keeping others informed of things that were decided in meetings they missed, passes on information others need to know so they can understand the rationale behind actions, or takes time off line to act as a go-between for members who are having difficulty working together. My research indicated that the motivation to engage in these time intensive practices often comes from the belief that it is necessary for the success of the project. In other words, from the belief that the short-term investment of time and effort will pay off in long-term business results.

As Huff notes, however, others may be relying on relational practitioners to do this work because they believe it is work that fits their personality and style. In line with Huff’s hypothesis, I found that others often attributed the motivation to engage in relational behaviors as an issue of personality and style rather than strategic intervention. So, for example, people who engaged in these activities were often called the glue of the team and thought of as caring or thoughtful individuals.

This disappearing act suggests that if we want to “appear” our relational practices, we have to articulate our intentions first to ourselves and then to others. Why are we doing what we are doing and how is it connected to outcomes we want to achieve? Naming our intention and connecting our actions to strategic goals is an antidote to disappearing and addresses the tendency Huff notes of just keeping our heads down, working hard and hoping for the best.

The limits of language

The second disappearing act has to do with language. It is often difficult to find words to describe relational work powerfully. Acknowledging and building on -- rather than attacking -- others ideas is an effective way to build consensus, but it may be labeled as simply “being polite” or in Huff’s words, “being deferential”. Maintaining relationships that are critical to accomplishing the task may be dismissed as just “being nice.” Someone who takes time to teach someone a new skill or pass on information that will help them do a better job may be described as a “nurturer” or as in the Huff article, a “detail person”.

Language such as this tends to feminize the behavior and, because of longstanding gender norms in the workplace, weakens it. In addition, it promotes the kind of dichotomous thinking on which power relations and patriarchy are maintained (Calas & Smircich, 1991; Flax, 1990; Jacobsen & Jacques, 1997). That is, using soft, feminine language to describe relational skills evokes more general gendered dichotomies (such as strong/weak, public/private, rational/emotional) that underlie organizational discourse. Using such language, then, is not only limited in its ability to capture the strategic intention and effectiveness dimension of the activity, it actually serves to maintain the dichotomous thinking in which relational activity is cast as the devalued “other” in organizational discourse.

With the advent of concepts such as emotional intelligence at work (Goleman, 1998) there is a greater acceptance of words such as empathy and emotion. But rarely are these terms linked to organizational outcomes and bottom line results. More often, they are used to describe someone with “social skills” perhaps important to personal success but rarely linked strongly to specific business outcomes.

This second disappearing act suggests that if we want to rescue relational practice from invisibility we need to use organizationally strong language to describe it both when we practice it and when we see it practiced by others.

Confusing relational practice with femininity

The third disappearing act I found in my data – how relational practice gets confused with femininity -- is where the implications for women are felt most strongly. When men do relational practice, the first two disappearing acts might render their relational competence invisible. That is, they might be misinterpreted as weak and they might have trouble finding language that adequately describes the power and contribution of their behavior. But for women, something additional happens. When they do relational practice, it often gets confused with their social roles in society as nurturing wives and mothers. When they engage relational practice women are likely to be seen as “mothering” rather than leading, as selflessly giving (expecting nothing in return!) rather than modeling a new more relational way of working.

This confusion is problematic. Selfless giving is, by definition, non-mutual. And effective relational practice — whether practiced by men or women — depends on conditions of mutuality and reciprocal influence (Zaccaro, Rittman, & Marks, 2001). People who put relational leadership into practice (by, for example, seeking to develop others by co-authoring articles with junior faculty or agreeing to chair an important but time consuming university initiative) have every right to expect that this stance of mutuality will be met and matched by others, i.e. that others will join them in co-creating the kind of environment where these conditions can prevail such that someone else will head up the next time-consuming initiative.

Indeed, the positive outcomes of newer models of leadership such as collective learning, mutual engagement, learning across difference and mutual empowerment cannot occur under conditions of non-mutuality (Jordan, 1986). On the contrary, for relational practice to be widely adopted, it must have embedded within it an invitation to reciprocate in kind. But gender expectations constrain this possibility for women.

When a woman’s attempt to use relational practice to work more effectively are misunderstood as “doing mothering,” the expectation of reciprocity embedded in the practice is rendered invisible. Thus, women may find they are expected and even relied on to practice many of the relational aspects of leadership but to do it without a recognition that this is strategic behavior and without expecting similar behavior from others.

This third disappearing act suggests that we need to consciously separate our relational practices from gendered expectations about our social roles as wives and mothers, both in our own minds and in the perceptions of others. In practical terms this can be difficult to do. Are we simply responding to gendered expectations to nurture and develop others or is our behavior intentional action on our part to do what is best for the work? Herein, I believe, is the central challenge in enacting relational practice and brings us to the final issue I wish to address.

How can we tell if we are engaging in relational work
that is adding value (Relational Practice)
or relational work that is not (Relational Malpractice)?

The biggest challenge in thinking about relational practice is figuring out when we are doing work that adds enough value that it is worth time and effort and that which should be avoided. Is it OK to spend time on color coordinating folders to make it easier for everyone to find what they need? What about bringing in china cups and fresh ground coffee for meetings so team members feel cared for? Or remembering birthdays and making sure we bring in the cupcakes, send the cards and visit the colleague in the hospital? And what about more developmental practices such as teaching someone a new skill or taking the time to mentor a junior colleague?

Huff’s advice is that we be selective. In working with female executives I have found that women have difficulty putting that advice into practice. Over the years I have developed a rubric that I believe can help us distinguish between relational practice and what I call relational malpractice (see Table 1).

Table 1: Relational Practice and Relational Malpractice

Column 1 Column 2 Column 3
Non-relational practice Relational Practice Relational Malpractice
Dysfunctionally command and control (Bully) Relational Practice (New Leader) Dysfunctionally relational (Wimp/Doormat)
Self Self-in-relation Other
Task Create conditions where task can get done (process and task) Process
Knows Everything (Never get input) Fluid Expertise (Nature of task decides) Knows Nothing (Always get input)
Authoritarian Authoritative Authority-less
Good for my career? Is it good for the work? Will they like me?

Column 1 represents a dysfunctional, non-relational practitioner, the kind of command and control leader, for example, who puts self and career ahead of the work, who doesn’t ask for input or admit being wrong.

Column 2 represents the best characteristics of a relational practitioner, a leader who thinks more fluidly about self and other, who focuses on process as well as task, who lets the nature of the work determine when to get input and who thinks primarily about the needs of the work rather than career or self in determining what action to take.

Column 3 represents characteristics of a dysfunctional relational leader who exhibits relational malpractice, focusing exclusively on others and their needs, afraid to move ahead with decisions, focused on meeting others’ expectations in order to be liked and accepted. These columns highlight three dynamics underlying relational practice: The Disappearing Dynamic, the B-word Dynamic and The Malpractice Dynamic.

The Disappearing Dynamic

Much of Huff’s focus – and my work on disappearing – concern the Disappearing Dynamic: Operating in column 2 but being perceived as operating in column 3. That is, enacting relational competence but being perceived as weak, indecisive or motivated by a desire to be liked. If we sense this is happening it is important to re-capture the leadership and effectiveness dimensions of the behaviors that have gotten disappeared. Being clear about our intention and connecting it to the quality and effectiveness of the work, using strong language to describe what it is we are doing and making sure we push back on the conflation of our behavior with femininity or powerlessness are all ways to interrupt the disappearing dynamic. Pushing back on the three disappearing acts can rescue the behavior from being devalued or unrecognized and help us remove ourselves from potentially exploitive situations.

The B-word Dynamic

The second dynamic the rubric helps us identify refers to operating in Column 2 (relational practice) but being misinterpreted as operating in Column 1 (command and control). When women are authoritative, focus on task as well as process, or make unilateral decisions when the situation calls for that, they can be perceived as bossy, bully broads or worse. In other words, gendered expectations of women can make even simple behavior, like being brief and direct in your communication, seem inappropriately assertive.

Not all women are naturally relational, but of course, all are expected to be. Female leaders who work in not-for-profits note that this dynamic is especially relevant for them. People who have chosen to work in the not for profit world because they want a different work environment may confuse relational practice with relational malpractice, holding leaders (especially female leaders) to a standard of caring, compassion and process that can spiral into dysfunction. Efforts to stay firmly in relational practice by, for example engaging fluid expertise, or making sure conflicts and contradictions are addressed and not avoided, can be challenging.

Women in workshops I’ve led who are faced with this challenge note that one way of addressing the dilemma is to talk about it openly. Saying, for example, that after hearing all the input and realizing that their role as director requires that they make a decision between two good alternatives, they have decided on option A for these reasons. The relationality of their leadership is expressed by their willingness to share information openly, not shying away from the role, responsibility and accountability inherent in taking on a leadership position.

The Malpractice Dynamic

In this dynamic we tell ourselves we are operating in Column 2 but we are actually operating in Column 3. This is perhaps the most insidious dynamic because it gets to the heart of our ambivalence about things relational. Certainly, it doesn’t take long to identify extreme examples of relational malpractice. We have all been in meetings where we want to get to the bottom line and someone, maybe even the person in charge, keeps us on process, endlessly getting input, shying away from making a decision. And we have been in situations where the tough work of giving negative feedback, letting someone go, or addressing an underlying conflict has been avoided in a misguided attempt to foster harmony and a “caring” environment.

In these cases, the issue is that the relational practitioner has confused relationality with non-mutual acts of deference or selflessness. This tendency is something Miller and Stiver (1997) describe as relational paradox: The tendency to move out of authenticity and mutuality in the mistaken belief that it will enhance the relationship, when in fact, it does the opposite. Not dealing with the tough issues, taking oneself out of the mix, focusing on feelings of closeness rather than the real connection that happens when we deal with issues, are all symptoms of enacting the relational paradox and ending up in column three when we are trying to be in column two.

Relational practice (column 2) is about effective working relationships characterized by mutuality where the goal is learning, effectiveness and mutual growth in connection. Mutuality and authenticity mean tackling the tough issues, putting one’s own needs and the needs of the work in the mix, being willing to make the difficult decisions, and knowing when to get input and when to act.

Huff notes that when we are trying to change our behavior and we aren’t used to the alternative, we often overcompensate. Using the rubric it’s easy to see two ways that might happen. People who want to move away from column one (command and control leadership behavior) may inadvertently move to column three (doormat) rather than two (relational practice). Conversely, people wanting to move from column three (doormat) may inadvertently move to column one. When we think overcompensation might be at play, it is important to ask ourselves clarifying questions. What are our motives? Are we truly applying relational principles (including mutuality) to our working relationships? What would it mean to put relationality into practice in this particular case? In other words, the rubric can help us identify where we are actually operating (as opposed to where we think we might be operating) as well as explore mistakes in the perceptions of our behavior.


The gender dynamics Huff described nearly 20 years ago have not gone away. On the contrary, they are perhaps more pernicious than ever because the organizational context has changed. Alternatives to heroic images of leadership (e.g. servant leadership, humble leadership) abound (Pearce & Conger, 2003) and there is a general recognition that these alternatives are more stereotypically feminine in nature than traditional models (Peters, 2005) . Sally Helgesen hypothesized as much in the early 1980s. Yet, there is a danger that the “female advantage” hypothesized by Sally Helgesen will end up not advantaging, but indeed further disadvantaging women.

In other words, the model of leadership may indeed be more stereotypically feminine but the disappearing dynamic might make it even more difficult for women to adopt it than men. One of the most interesting aspects of re-visiting Huff’s paper today is that it offers an opportunity to observe processes of re-instantiation of the status quo. Models of leadership and effective behavior in organizations may be undergoing a paradigm shift but there are powerful forces pulling us back to old models and old behaviors. Revisiting Wives of the Organization from this perspective helps us understand some of the gender dynamics in this particular re-instantiation and develop strategies in response.

The second benefit of revisiting this work today is that we have the advantage of critical management studies (e.g. Calas & Smirchich, 1991; Jacobsen & Jacques, 1997; Martin & Knopoff, 1995; Mumby & Putnam, 1992) to help us focus on systemic as well as individual level effects. Too many of us reading Wives of the Organization blamed ourselves for what was happening, believing that we were at fault and just couldn’t get it right : we were unable to say no, we cared too much, we lacked self-confidence, weren’t assertive enough, etc. The recent emphasis on gender as a systemic vs. an individual dynamic can free us from feelings of deficiency and instead, focus us on strategizing effective responses to these gendered dynamics.


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