WHAT WOMEN BRING TO THE EXECUTIVE TABLE: EMPATHY
As I have written previously, the issue is not “how to make women execs act more like men” but rather to have exec teams embrace the unique attributes that women bring to the conversation. These teams are still so male dominated not just in composition but also in tone and style. Women are forced to play by the rules of the game as they exist and are frequently discounted when they try to insert a different voice…one that speaks to human reactions.
I’m not talking broadly about “emotions” here. Yes, women tend to be more tuned into their own and others’ emotions but I’d be hard pressed to say that men are not expressive. They certainly are free with their humor, frustration, impatience, aggression, stubbornness and dissatisfaction…to name a few. So let’s not go down the rat hole of women are emotional and men are not. Not true.
But let’s think of a continuum of emotional responses when major decisions are being made. On one extreme is a logical, analytic, data driven perspective that is devoid of assessing the impact on the human beings that will be effected. On the other extreme is a purely sympathetic, sensitive point of view that only thinks about the human element without consideration for business realities. I think we can all agree that neither extreme is ideal. But in the real world most decisions lean heavily towards the number crunching side of the equation.
And here is another truth only whispered behind closed doors. This makes women nuts!
What are they to do with the internal debate and rush of emotions that emerge? Continue to tamp down every human reaction they have? Continue to try to find some way to influence their fellow execs? Become an automaton? The women I speak with are not finding any of these methods helpful. And in the end, they still haven’t found a way to get their peers to think about the people.
Let’s just zoom in on empathy: sensitivity, awareness, concern for others. And let’s aim for that middle ground on that continuum of all data or all people. Can you imagine an executive team that routinely discusses the real human impact of their decisions? I’ve only seen it episodically and it was quite profound but I’d love to believe that some day it will be a habit. But that will only happen if the unique voice that women bring to the table is spoken, heard and integrated.
Here’s the risk of keeping empathy out of the discussion:
- Women will not bring their whole selves to the table. The censoring and withdrawing is already quite pronounced. Women execs get frequent feedback to speak up more. But what they all say to me is: 1) I’m only going to speak if I have something valuable to say. I’m not interested in hearing the sound of my own voice for the sake of adding to the tally. 2) When I raise my concerns about the staff I’m shut down routinely and that undercuts my credibility. This is a tough bind that few women have found their way out of. Either play the game and lose self respect or try to change the game and lose the respect of your peers. That sucks.
- The staff suffers. Even though every executive knows the best practices for unveiling major decisions the impatience to “get ‘er done” ASAP trumps all else. Carefully crafted plans to engage the staff and conduct information sessions and give time and space for questions and provide training or preparation to make a successful change and loads and loads of synchronized talking points usually gets abbreviated because everything is now behind schedule and the results have to appear in the next quarter. That’s reality. But it is usually the women around the exec table who beat the drum for attending to the staff needs. Urgency is ever present so it is not an issue of slowing down the process. It’s about reshaping or managing the process differently. And women understand this.
- Women will opt out. Sylvia Hewitt has done great research on why there are so few women executives. One of her punchlines is that once a woman arrives in the board room she discovers that the dynamics are just too awful. Women find the politics and aggression to be too far afield from their core values and sense of self. So they leave to find more meaningful work. Wow. Don’t we think everyone loses in those situations?
So what can be done? How can women execs lead the way to instill greater empathy in the team?
- Contrasting role models. How many more years do we need to revere the likes of Jamie Dimon (or any other banker), Jack Welch, Steve Jobs (yes, I said it) or Sam Walton? Yes, they have all been wildly successful and have a huge wake of dead bodies to prove it while their own pockets and egos have ballooned. In spite of reading about Walmart’s inhumane people practices and what an asshole Jobs was and watching the bankers of the world escaping indictments they sorely deserve, they continue to be held up as beacons of smart business role models. Don’t we think there is something twisted about that? I say that we need new role models. Anne Mulcahy and her successor Ursula Burns at Xerox, Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Elizabeth Warren of the US Senate, David Kelley at IDEO and the like. There need to be inspiring examples all around us that we want to aspire to be like.
- Spend more 1:1 time making your point. Making big changes or stating something out of the mainstream in a team setting rarely have the intended effect. We are too exposed in group settings and will gravitate towards protecting our images. But meeting one on one to have a more intimate discussion of the issues has greater possibilities. You can be less censured/measured and the listener can be less guarded. You can ask questions and get deeper into the conversation than you would in the team. That said, this is a long term project rather than an event. Women execs need to spend time building meaningful connections to their male peers in ways that garner respect. In time you will see small signs that you have influenced them and eventually they will seek you out. And then maybe (but don’t hold your breath) the whole team will solicit your point of view during meetings.
- Work on your relationship with the CEO. In the end, it is the CEO who sets the tone and approach on the exec team. Everyone will follow his lead. Find as many ways as possible to make inroads to raise people issues with him…while you are talking about business and results. You know…and you need to help him see…that the people have a major impact on the results so keep tying the two together.
I think we’ve arrived at a moment in time when we can all agree that the extreme and stereotypical male model of leadership has made quite a mess of things. It’s time to see the book shelves lined with biographies of a different type of leader…one that is empathetic, more inclusive, less ego driven and more mindful of the greater good. And I believe that tons of women AND men fit that bill. We just have to start listening to them.
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