Flipping Gender Stereotypes at Work

Let it be known that I completely agree with that idea that a double-standard exists regarding aggressive/assertive women at work. You know: an assertive woman is labeled aggressive (and then the B word) but an assertive male isn’t.    As an assertive woman who has been called the B word more than once, I completely resonate with the unfairness of that label.

Let me also point out, however, that the reverse is probably true. Men who are overly sensitive and emotional in a non-angry way probably tend to be labeled as soft. “Grow a pair”, “get a backbone”, and “girlie men” come to mind.   Women are rarely criticized in this manner.

So it seems to me that the issue is when someone acts outside the expected behavior of their gender. It’s not so much a female stereotype issue but rather expectations about gender roles in general.

I spent most of my life trying to conform to the expectations of others, and I can tell you that it’s neither healthy nor fun. I do not recommend that we change who we are for the purpose of making others feel at ease. Nor do I recommend that we force our style upon others, constantly challenging them to accept us on our own terms.

Aristotle once said that wisdom means finding the optimum balance.   Admittedly, part of my assertive self was more about my belief that I must be assertive in a man’s world. However, at work that belief came at the expense of my feminine, soft side.   I’ve since learned that I can be both feminine and assertive and that combination tends to make me more effective and accessible to others. Not that I’ve found the right balance yet given the feedback I still sometimes get…

So during our discussions about improving gender role expectations, perhaps those of us who sometimes go too far can find the yang to our yin and find a more effective balance.   Who knows? Maybe bringing both our yin and yang to the table will help us move the agenda forward in a way that respects others and our authenticity alike.

Finding Win-Win When Entering a Storm

Have you ever had a meetings/exam where it feels like your entire future is riding on the outcome? Our performance is critical, but we can’t perform at our best since the stress is so high: failure means that I am not the person I think I am/wish to be. In reality, even passing/achieving my goal will not make me feel whole, at least not for long.

So, here are the real outcomes by this scenario: I “win” and I still feel incomplete or I fail and I feel devastated.   Even when I win, I lose.

The first time I had a situation like this was when I was taking my oral candidacy examination for my doctorate. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, candidates give a presentation of their research proposal and then are grilled for a couple of hours by a panel of typically 5 faculty. Though the questions tend to focus on the proposal itself, any tangent is considered fair game. Because the questioning is both deep and broad, preparation requires up to 4 weeks of devoted preparation. If you fail, you may be given a chance to retake it. If not, or if you fail the make-up, then you’re out. Adios muchacha.

Despite this crazy set-up, I think it’s accurate to say that I went into my oral exam completely calm and did a pretty good job. In fact, some of the feedback I got was that my presentation was one of the best they’ve seen.

What made the difference?

Ironically, I had ambivalence about being in school and so was not emotionally tied to the outcome. I had recently taken a short leave of absence from the program because of my self-doubt about my ability to complete the degree. When I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do, I re-enrolled. Therefore, I went into the exam completely open to their feedback regarding my ability to advance. Who better than a panel of faculty in a 5:1 exam to determine whether I am suited to continue? If I’m not, then it’s better to know now I reasoned than after investing in another 3 years of school. If they decide I am suited, then maybe this is the right path for me after all. In other words, I took the intent of the exam to heart (to determine whether I’m suited to advance) instead of making it a referendum on my self-worth.

Therefore, I can change the calculus from the original lose-lose scenario.   If I am pursuing a goal that is wrong for me then I am more likely to be invited to pursue a different, and more satisfying and fulfilling pathway.  If I feel whole going into the meeting and open about the outcome and the path that it will put me on, I can truly get as much advice and guidance from the meeting as possible, instead of just trying to prove myself. In addition, by being open instead of stressed about the outcome, I can put my best foot forward. A real win-win-win.

How can this perspective improve your performance or quality of life? Given that a high stakes meeting may not be in play for you now, what does feel high stake in your life? How can you switch a lose-lose to a win-win scenario?

Regarding Employees

Our capitalistic system requires that we pay to procure products or services. If purchasing a service, the real or implied contract is that the recipient must deliver that service in a satisfactory manner else lose their job or the customer’s business.

That expectation of salary for service creates potential problems in the creation of a quality relationship. After all, the relationship is quid pro quo or Thou Shall Do Something For Me, not necessarily based on a genuine concern for the other. The Arbinger Institute, author of the books Anatomy of Peace and Leadership and Self-Deception, regard this expectation as treating another not as a person, but as a vehicle or means to an end. This may be especially true for a star performer – after all, my employees are there to make me look good, right? And they’d better keep doing it.

At the other extreme are employees that create problems. Those problems may either include a lack of productivity, disruptive behavior or poor work quality. In this case, management is likely focusing on the problem and the employee’s weaknesses, not their strengths. Employers may be regarding those folks not as people but as obstacles.

Alternatively, an employee may perform adequately, neither rising nor falling significantly above or below the threshold of productivity to attract the attention of management. The employee may not be on the radar of the employer at all; they’re pretty much left alone to do their job. Again, the employee may be regarded as an object – in this case, as irrelevant. Management is not focusing on strengths or weaknesses as they may be ignoring them completely.

Each scenario, though understandable and common given human nature, sets us up for conflict and dysfunctional relationships.   The scenarios where the other is an obstacle or irrelevant also increases the odds the employee will be either unengaged or actively disengaged (complaining, creating problems, angry). In the meantime, management is probably feeling pretty helpless, victimized and perplexed by employee attitudes and work performance.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Employers are not the only ones guilty of the behavior. Employees may feel management is irrelevant, gets in their way, or is a vehicle for their own needs, such as income, and desires. If these attitudes are pervasive among both management and staff, then the whole organization may be mired in relationship dysfunction.

There’s no way, given our system, to avoid those Thou Shall expectations when you’re paying someone for a service. However, that does not mean that we must be blind to the subconscious dynamic that is associated with that expectation. Arbinger suggests that we have a choice as to whether we transition from regarding others as people (where their needs, cares, hopes and fears are as important as our own) to seeing them as objects (vehicles, obstacles or irrelevant). In other words, if you are to reward, punish or review an employee, do you consider their needs, cares, hopes and fears? Are you sensitive to those needs? Do you treat them as you would want to be treated? Paying someone does not give another permission to disregard their humanity.

Positive Organizations

“Imagine coming to work each day where inspiration, curiosity, trust, achievement and engagement are the norm.  What impact would that have on your School?  This concept does not just exist in our theoretical ideals.  The empirically-based discipline of positive psychology shows us how to thrive and create this environment in our professional and personal lives.” – SWP

Yes, it is do-able. Positive organizational scholarship is the study of how to create a positive workplace that uses positive emotion, meaning and purpose and healthy relationships to create a thriving workplace that values and nurtures its employees. For many of us, this sounds like some Disney-esque ideal: Value us? Nurture us?

Rather than write about this, I will refer you to the webinar I gave recently on behalf of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy Leadership Development Special Interest Group. I talk about positive psychology in organizations in general but end with thoughts and recommendations about implementation in higher education. Check it out here. It’s free!

Measures Versus Values: A Disconnect

Every organization has to worry about the bottom line, regardless of their mission. After all, rent and salaries need to be paid. The lights have to come on every day no matter how many lives are saved or turned around. And fortunately, money is (fairly) easy to track and measure, if you have a good accountant.

We can also measure units of productivity: units sold, graduated, admitted, healed, dispensed, manufactured, resolved, fixed, passed and so forth, depending on your trade. Hopefully also pretty straight-forward and useful to measure. After all, if questions, laws, widgets or whatever are the unit of our trade, it makes sense to focus on them when evaluating whether we are meeting our goals and benchmarks.

However, I can’t help but notice that organizational values are not generally measurable as widgets, laws or questions. Rather, they pertain to innovation, respect, reliability, trust, communication, teamwork, responsibility, people, continuous improvement, integrity and so forth. I don’t see where items sold and dollars generated translate into an organization’s core values.

It’s not just organizations that may feel a sense of disconnect between measures and values. Our families may also focus on money, but also grades, income, expenses, vacation days, chores, items purchased, items lost, assignments forgotten, etc.

I can certainly understand the tendency to just measure things that are easily measurable. Those core values are notoriously hard to assess. The problem is, that if we don’t try to measure our progress towards living our values, then our values become a lost commodity that becomes our theory, not our reality. When we fail to live our values, then our lives just become a means to a financial (or other) end rather than the mechanism for finding meaning and purpose in our lives.

We may not all be setting the benchmarks in our jobs or organizations, but I’ll bet every one of us has a say as to what we measure in our personal lives. What are you measuring? Does that measurement portfolio align with your mission and core values, or is it on balance making you overly-focused on the wrong thing? Get your personal or organizational board of trustees together to re-evaluate. You may find that you’re missing some pretty amazing data!

Managing Office Politics

The term “office politics” refers to overall culture at work, but often in a way that implies negative connotations. I usually hear about it in terms of how workplaces gossip and cliques manifest from informal power struggles.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Office politics can be transformed to a positive culture where each person feels valued, engaged and supported in a way that enables their success. Each person knows that their teammates have their back – whether they’re present or not. Every person in the organization plays a part in creating and sustaining such a culture, but management plays a key role in either generating or discouraging such an environment.

What kind of culture are you nurturing? Think about who you work with and answer these questions for the whole range of people you work with, rather than just the best or worse case scenarios.

  • I tend to see what others are doing wrong.
  • There are people that I’d rather not deal with.
  • Certain people are making my job or life really difficult.
  • I tend to like to vent about others to my work friends.
  • I love to share a juicy story about a colleague.
  • I try to spend as much time as possible with the people that can help me.
  • I feel better when others confirm to me that I am right.
  • I know that I’m right most of the time.
  • I don’t feel worthy of or capable in my job.
  • I wish that others would get their act together and start doing their job.
  • I am not ready to be involved in decision-making.
  • It’s important to me that I’m viewed as productive and competent at work.

If you’re human and being honest with yourself, you probably had at least a few of these statements feel true to you in at least some circumstances. It’s natural. We all do it. However, please be aware that this tendency, which is often subconscious, is what contributes to a negative work culture. The Arbinger Institute calls this natural human tendency going into the “box”.

Going forward, try to catch yourself in the act when you’re in or going into the box. What does your body feel like? What thoughts are you having? What sorts of situations cause you to feel this way?

Now think about what you tend to do when in the box. Are you at your best, most helpful and peaceful self? Do you tend to be productive and creative when in the box? Probably not. We tend to actually lose productivity, collegiality and/or work quality when distracted by negative feelings.

Therefore, it makes sense to manage the box. Notice when you go in and know how to get yourself out. How can you find calm, peace, forgiveness and compassion for the person that is trying their best and struggling, just like you?

Creating the right office culture starts inside you. You can only give what you have, and if what you have is anger, resentment, entitlement, or victimhood, then that’s what you’ll sow at work. Instead, cultivate generosity, helpfulness, appreciation, and compassion inside and that’s what you can grow in others.

Read more about office politics in HBR here.