In the season 3 finale and the season 4 premier of Friends, Ross and Rachel decide to get back together. But Rachel has one condition – she writes Ross a long letter in which she describes everything that went wrong with the relationship and Ross has to accept full responsibility. Ross, anxious to get back together with Rachel lies and says he read the letter – twice – and agrees to everything in the letter. As he learns what he agreed to he is unable to keep up the charade. Ross finally comes clean and admits that he fell asleep reading the letter – it was 18 pages long – front and back!
Women understand Rachel’s letter. It is a pure pink female masterpiece – long, citing every incident no matter how trivial in exacting detail.
Believe it or not our ability to write these types of letters comes in handy when working with men. I have written several business “Rachel letters.” It is one of the few times I get to venture towards the Pink end of the spectrum and frolic in my female characteristics with abandon.
The Rachel letter works in a particular situation/environment. In my article Swamp Wars, I talk about how there now two groups of men are fighting for dominance – the Intellectuals (Environmentalists) and Operations (Great American Alligator Slayers). They each value different male characteristics and use those to define the reason for their superiority over the other group. Because they don’t play by a common set of rules and take polar opposite positions, their battle for dominance goes on and on. It is never resolved.
As the (only) woman in the room, I spent the last 7-8 years caught in the middle of this battle. It has defined my work environment across three companies and several projects. When I first encountered it, I thought it was just the nature of that project and the situation. But then I went to a new company and had the exact same experience.
Swamp Wars In The Workplace
It seems the male-male dynamic has changed and as women we need to understand and work this new dynamic too. Here is how my second encounter with Swamp Wars with played out.
I was in my periodic project review meeting with senior management when one of my managers says a few choice words followed by “Did you see this email from Tyler?” The other two managers responded that they are reading it. I looked on my Blackberry and I didn’t receive the email. My managers who I would describe as classic if not stereotypical construction operations guys (Alligator Slayers) were getting very worked up.
They started talking about the first item in the email and got upset because the issue was resolved – I knew all about the issue because I worked it and resolved it with Tyler’s team. Tyler was re-opening it. My managers discussed this issue in detail then read the next item which they also discussed but in less detail. They then partially read the third item in the list and broke off into some very colorful expressions and derogatory comments about Tyler being raised by women and being a “Nancy boy.”
Why in the world were my supervisors reacting this way??!!
Tyler worked for the same company as us but due to the nature of our work, we had a contractual relationship between us. It is normal in construction for us to have a bit of an adversarial relationship with Tyler’s group as he was the “Owner’s representative” on our project. But for some reason this was going beyond adversarial. I experienced this level of antagonism on my previous project too.
As the project manager I requested from Tyler a Notice to Proceed on another phase of work. In response he sent this email requesting resolution of 5 items before granting the Notice to Proceed.
Wait a minute – I requested the NTP but I was not copied on his response! I was the one who personally worked each of the items and resolved them with Tyler’s on-site representatives and other stakeholders.
Why am I – of all people – out of the loop?!
I remembered back to my previous project where the same thing happened. I was the (only) woman on that project. And even though I was the project manager, I felt left out – that none of the men saw me with a role in these contractual disputes, even though it is what defined my role. At first this seemed like a slight against me as a female construction project manager. But I eventually figured out that it wasn’t, it wasn’t even a contractual dispute – it was a dispute between two groups of men to see who was going to win over the other! One side had somehow insulted the other (we never learned how) and now 100% of the focus was on getting payback.
Yes, because I am a woman I was sidelined. And yes, because I was a woman, not a man, I had no place in the dispute!
That is the important characteristic of this situation. You may be the team Captain but feel like you are not on the playing field but merely up in the bleachers with nothing to do but cheer for your side in a sporting event then you are in the middle of the Swamp Wars!
Finally my boss forwarded me Tyler’s email so I could read it. Reading his email the light came on – the real issue was not any of the 5 listed items.
Tyler, who I would definitely describe as an Intellectual (MBA from a prestigious university), believed my managers were typical construction – bull in the china shop bulldozing over everyone to get their way – kind of guys. Tyler wanted to prove that he had all the real contractual power and could make them bend to his will and do things his way.
But Tyler, being an Intellectual, knew he couldn’t take these guys on in their element, he can’t take the dominating, intimidating route – they would eat him for lunch!! So he took a different tactic (the same one used on my last project).
The way Tyler’s email read was like this:
- You didn’t fix the roof like you said you would. What did you all that time you were up there? I don’t see where it is fixed you need to do it again.
- Why are you sitting in here doing nothing? I told you I wanted the house repainted. I don’t like the color. I want to go to the store and get some paint samples. You need to get off your lazy butt so we can go to the store.
- You said you would mow the grass yesterday. Why isn’t it done? The yard is an embarrassment! I want the grass mowed today!
- I don’t like the way you built the addition to the deck. It doesn’t look right. I wanted the steps on the other side. And that stain color is hideous. You always have to do things your way and don’t even ask me what I want. I hate it – if you don’t fix it this week I’m going to hire someone else to do it!
- Do I have to take out the trash myself? I asked you to do it three days ago. Why can’t you even get this one simple job done? Do I have to do everything around here? If I want something done, why do I always have to do it myself? You’re no help whatsoever.
Sound like a nagging wife?! Oh yeah!! It all made sense now.
On my previous project the Owner’s rep’s sent non-stop letters of what we weren’t doing, or what we weren’t doing right or questioning what we were doing and why we were doing it that way. Bitchy, naggy wife! I remember at one point someone saying he was like a bitchy woman to which I responded that I didn’t even know how to be that big of a bitch!
Now I get it!! I understand why my managers reacted as they did.
Ending the Swamp War
So here’s what’s going on.
The guys see a Pink and Blue world. There is no Purple. The Blue world is dominated by Operations – the Alligator Slayers. Tyler and Intellectuals like him know they won’t win in the Blue zone. So what option do they have?? They go Pink!! Stereotypical Pink.
I guess from fighting with their wives, they know male vulnerabilities. They know exactly what to say and how to say it to get to the guys, to unnerve them. They must visualize what the ultimate bitchy, naggy, woman would do and do exactly that.
After all this sunk in, I admit I had to laugh! Maybe I should feel insulted that these men see women in stereotypical neurotic terms but it was really funny to watch my managers be reduced to a loss for words and have to resort to Nancy-boy comments.
However, this situation with Tyler presented a serious problem for me – I felt like I was stuck in the middle of a dysfunctional marriage. I had a job to do, a project that I didn’t just want to complete but that I wanted to excel! Swamp Wars could completely derail me! I had to end this game!
I knew how to respond. If Tyler wants to play down in the Pink zone with the “nagging wife” scenario, then bring it on!
I can do Pink – I can write a “Rachel Letter.”
I responded to Tyler’s email with a 7 page 10 pt. font letter. In it I addressed each issue in nauseating detail. I cited and quoted emails, correspondence and meeting minutes. I walked through the resolution logic and process to resolve each item. I provided the proof of his representatives’ acceptance and that each item was closed.
Like any good Rachel letter it took a long time to write. I got done at 2:00 am. But it was a work of art! I left nothing unanswered, nothing left to question. I dotted every contractual i and dotted every t.
What the Rachel letter does is play on our detail oriented characteristics. In my list of balancing characteristics I say that to men 40% is good enough while women question if 120% is good enough. What is happening in this situation is that the Intellectual side has found a man who is good with details – he might work to the 80%, 85% or even 90% level and overwhelm the other men. But as a woman I can go 120% with no problem. Need me to go 150%? I can do that. Need more than that?? Bring it on!
We just tap into that thing in us that in an argument allows us to recall an obscure detail from 4 years ago. We empower that trait better than any man ever could!
In writing a Rachel letter though there is one female trait that must be avoided – EMOTION.
To make the Rachel letter powerful there has to be absolutely no emotion! It is pure facts – fact after fact, after fact. You look at the problem from all angles and perspectives (another female ability) and respond with detailed facts. By not being emotional, you don’t venture into naggy, bitchy wife territory – you simply move the argument out of the Pink zone towards Purple.
By being non-emotional and detailed to the nth degree, you are not playing into a female stereotype, only to a female strength.
Early the next morning I sent out my letter in an email to Tyler and cc’d everyone.
Did I hear back from anyone? Did anyone say “Great job!” No. And I didn’t expect to hear back from anyone. Just like with Ross the letter is too long for the guys to read. It was overwhelming and that was the point. The only person who may have read it in its entirety is Tyler.
After writing a “Rachel letter” expect dead silence! But don’t assume the issues are resolved. Even though I got my Notice to Proceed, I knew the issues would come up again. And they did.
Several weeks later, I am in another meeting with my senior managers and Tyler. I am in my usual power seat, pushed back from the table so I can keep track of everyone. Tyler is directly across from me. Yes he has been waiting for his moment. He brings up his email and all the issues like I never even wrote my letter. My senior managers start blustering and bumbling responses. They are agitated! Tyler has them! Or so he thinks.
I coolly say “Tyler, if you remember, on October 28th at 7:00 am (like how I state the date and time) I sent you an email with a letter responding to each of the issues. Everyone was copied on it. I believe my letter made it perfectly clear that each of the items was closed and we are under no further contractual obligation to address any of these items. If you would like to re-open an item, send me a request in writing per the contract requirement and I will be happy to respond. I will let you know all the time and dollar impacts of the changes you want.” “Meeeooow…..Hisssss.”
There was dead silence…except for vibe I was picking up from my supervisors “Go girl, you go girl!! We don’t know what you’re doing but keep going!!”
Tyler then tried to ignore me and direct a response back to my supervisors but I intercepted. I don’t remember what exactly I said but my tone said “Do you really want to go there? I work with these guys and I don’t get to exercise my catty female traits very often but if you want to play at that level, bring it on!! I would looove to play that game with you!”
Now I wish I could tell you that the “Rachel letter” works miracles, peace and harmony broke out all over but that didn’t happen. But the dynamics changed. I was now The Power Player on the project, not afraid to take on anyone who got between me and completing my project.
Tyler never stopped his power plays against me or my managers but I got ahead of him. Being more detail oriented I was on top of the contract requirements. Every time he missed a contract requirement I was on top of him, reminding him what he owed me. I drove my project forward. Most of the time I felt like Tyler was 10 steps behind me so when he did make a power play, I had my contract ducks lined up and could always respond with a Rachel letter.
For the remainder of the project, or at least until he left, I used short Rachel letters to keep moving Tyler back towards pure Purple. Essentially what I did was – I got up out of the bleachers walked down to the center of the field, placed myself between Tyler and my Alligator Slayer managers, keeping them apart and making them deal with me, not with each other.
Placing yourself in the middle of the Swamp War is complex and well, just not fun. Dealing with Alligator Slayers on one side then having to use different tactics to deal with the Tylers is frustrating and exhausting. But if you have a job to do and the Swamp War is going to make you fail then you have no option but to engage in it and change the dynamics by inserting yourself between the two sides and making each side deal with you.
Tyler eventually left and was replaced by someone who did not engage in Swamp Wars. On my previous project, the same thing happened, the Tyler-type on that project eventually left. One of his replacements was a woman. While there were still some Swamp War skirmishes going on, she and I finished the larger task order on the project. Once done, we then informed the men that we would take over the smaller task order they hadn’t completed and would finish that one too. A major victory for women in construction!
Proper Use of the Rachel Letter
The Rachel Letter is meant to overwhelm and drive a man who has gone over to the Pink end of the spectrum back towards Purple thereby ending the Swamp War. It is not the type of letter that you should use often because it is not read. If your male manager is working from the Pink end of the spectrum, you can use a series of shorter Rachel letters to move him back towards Purple. For example my Rachel letter to Tyler covered 5 issues in great detail. If I broke the letter up into 5 separate letters then I would have mini Rachel letters. I would provide the same level of irrefutable detail but in smaller bites so he can read and process it, but not counter.
Earlier this year, I received a Tyler-type email from my boss who was a classic Intellectual. It left me dumbfounded. I wasn’t sure what it meant or how to respond. I must have sat in front of my computer for at least two hours trying to figure out why he would send such an email to me.
I did figure out one thing – what was really going on – the real issue – had nothing to do with me. Something had happened that left him feeling powerless and he needed to reassert himself.
With Alligator Slayers this situation is easy – they just do whatever they need to in order to assert themselves. Very straight forward. But my boss was reasserting himself by going towards the Pink zone, not the Blue!! And that’s what I found tricky. He thought that by pushing me into stereotypical female Pink territory, he would reassert himself.
Because I was in a traditionally male role it was important to me that I didn’t acquiesce. I did not want to feed into his stereotypical views and risk losing credibility in my ability to do my job.
Even though I wanted to do a full Pink Rachel letter assault that would have been the wrong response. I had just uncovered a lot of procedural errors and completely reworked all of our procedures and cleaned up errors across all of the projects. It was important to me that I my 20+ years of expertise that allowed me to correct these errors be recognized and not subordinated to his ego. I needed to draw that line in the sand.
Therefore, I sent him a series of emails over the next few days through which I walked him through the changes I made I on the projects. He got a detailed email every day with a different project – mini Rachel letter for every project. I prevented him from pushing me into the Pink zone and I held onto every bit of my credibility as an expert at my job.
And like with Tyler, the issues came up again a few months later. And that is what I love about Rachel letters – they become a reference, they are documentation of all our hard work, our contributions and achievements. That is the ultimate reason why we write Rachel letters. It may take weeks, months or even years but at some point your Rachel letters come back to you and when they resurrect they have increased importance and power. The Rachel letter has more power than a typical letter, email or meeting minutes because of the documented detail it provides. The devil is in the details. As the author, you get credit. As women we may not like to openly brag about all of our accomplishments but a Rachel letter does just that. And even more so than a momentary brag a Rachel letter gives a woman enduring power that men can’t defeat.
In my next article I am going to revisit Swamp Wars and talk about women asserting their power to end Swamp Wars.
Continue reading on this topic with Don’t Be On The Swamp War Sidelines
An empowered woman knows how to employ her strengths to give herself enduring power.
Let me know your thoughts – leave a comment
If you want to subscribe to my articles contact me