Different Yet Equal

Men and women work differently. I won’t attempt to distill here the wealth of psychological and social research on the subject, but its generally accepted that there are empirical differences in the way men and women communicate, conceptualise things, remember facts and figures, and respond to others’ behaviours. So far so good for those of us who enjoy being part of a diverse workforce – different complementary strengths combine to make a more effective, capable team.

Equality is not about striving for sameness: Its about cherishing the differences.

But its not so simple as you go up the hierarchy and there are fewer people to blend into a balanced team: and at the top, of course, only one. Think for a minute about what words you’d use to describe a successful Chief Exec’, and you may find that most of them are usually thought of as ‘masculine’ attributes. Our mind-model of what a C-level manager is like is shaped by our past experience of these roles being filled mostly by men. Contrast this with your list of those attributes you’d most like in your manager (or senior management team) and you’ll probably see a broader range of both masculine and feminine characteristics.

Pop Quiz
1. List 10 characteristics of a successful CEO
2. List 10 attributes you’d like your manager to have

After decades of progress in promoting more women to more senior positions, this gap still persists – why? In part because it takes a long time to change deeply embedded beliefs. And, because we still don’t have enough women at the top to challenge the stereotypes we’ve learned over decades. And, the women who were first successful in breaking through the glass ceiling, were often those with easily identifiable ‘masculine’ characteristics that fit easily with our mental model of what a CEO should be like.

I started my career in a traditional, technical, local government department, completely surrounded by men. The first Management Team meetings I took part in were opened by “Good morning gentlemen, and Kate”! (Way to make me feel accepted!), but thankfully over the years I’ve worked with Management Teams that have included, and been led by, some great women. Still, I don’t think we have yet achieved the perfect balance of Ying and Yang – there’s a hard-to-define tension created by the way men and women behave together. Yes, it’s sexual (though not usually actively) because of long-established norms and expectations about dominance, attractiveness, competition, eloquence, power, respect and deference.

I have hope though – during a senior management meeting for a recent interim assignment, I suddenly realised that I couldn’t sense any of the usual tensions and I hadn’t observed any of the resulting behaviours. The men were relaxed, thoughtful and listening; the women were confident, decisive and engaged. A productive and enjoyable meeting in its own right, but also because I was encouraged by evidence that equality in the workplace may just be possible after all!

The year was 2081 and everyone was finally equal – Kurt Vonnegut


Burn Out and Bad Apples

One in a series of Case Studies with the Mindful Leadership Foundation which explore why some people in public service become miserable doing what they love: and how leaders of the social and caring professions can prevent burnout and nurture resilient and compassionate teams. If any of this is familiar to you, please share your story and your ideas.

Kristin is a new Housing Director, taking on the challenge to turn around an under-performing department, with a poor performance and customer service track record. The Housing Team is one of the principal customer interfaces, whose purpose is to help tenants with problems with their homes, their tenancies, their neighbours and communities. But this was not a happy or successful team, and it showed in their lack of hope, pride or enjoyment in their work. They avoided tenants and tricky issues; felt under-valued and over- worked; blamed other colleagues, the budget/policy/procedure, or even their customers; and came across as self-interested with little empathy for others.

I began to understand that these problems were symptoms caused by a number of underlying management and infrastructure issues: Not because these were ‘bad’ people.

Kristin, Housing Director

Most people get into Housing because they want to help others, but they get worn down by prolonged exposure to a controlling management culture, strict regulatory standards and external scrutiny, excessive bureaucracy, rationing of increasingly limited resources, negative media stereotypes, a focus on task and process (rather than purpose and outcome), and a never-ending supply of difficult, emotionally-draining situations to try and resolve with their tenants.

Kristin knew from networking, that this hadn’t just happened in her association, and that other Housing Directors were trying to address this phenomenon in a variety of ways – typically customer care training programmes, restructuring and redefining roles, and recruiting different skills. But she also felt strongly that more could be done to nurture and support people working in the front-line of housing, to sustain their sense of vocation, motivation, job satisfaction and achievement over the long-term.

To lose people to burn-out, poor performance, resignation or redundancy, is a terrible waste of all that early enthusiasm, and the skills and knowledge accumulated over the years.

Although we might not be able to significantly change the way the public sector works, it must surely be a worthwhile investment for Housing Associations to invest in the resilience, self-esteem and motivation of their field staff, so they can survive and thrive despite the bureaucracy, centralised standards and controls, spending cuts and increased customer needs and expectations.

Kristin’s Plan for Change

  • clearly state purpose, expectations of behaviour, roles and team-work
  • support the team-leaders to be resilient and lead the change
  • change KPIs and individual performance measures to be about outcomes for people
  • say thank you, praise others, promote and celebrate achievements
  • learn from mistakes and complaints and share ideas with colleagues
  • rethink policies, and have less of them, to simplify workflows and become more enabling guidelines rather than prescriptive procedures
  • provide regular team and training events
  • tackle the few ‘bad apples” and recruit new staff with the right people skills

But not everything went smoothly. The team-leaders struggled with the challenge of embracing the changes themselves whilst supporting their staff through the change process. They also found it difficult to tackle the few intransigent poor performers through the capability/disciplinary process at the same time as promoting more positive team-work. It took too long to move on the ‘bad apples’ and meanwhile their negativity detracted from the positive changes and drained the time and energy of the managers. Although the team-leaders were offered independent coaching support, they did not take this up because they were ‘too busy’.

It took time, really too much time, but gradually the mood of the team changed to be more positive, creative and achieving, with better feedback from customers and colleagues. On reflection, could more have been achieved more quickly, with more support to the team-leaders?

Why can’t IT do what we’re asking?

It goes like this….

IT – “we can do whatever you want, but you need to specify your requirements”

Business Team – “why can’t IT do what we’re asking?”

I don’t know how many times I’ve been part of this conversation and amazed by the difficulty of achieving understanding between IT and their business colleagues, and the ease with which misunderstanding becomes entrenched. My husband is an IT consultant, so we have both experienced this problem, from both sides, at work and, of course, at home!

The problem here is that both sides assume that the other is responsible. Worse than that, the communication gap is so large that neither side in this conversation is really understanding the other. Then, the reactions of each group can lead to a negative spiral that makes things worse. Techies either want detailed requirements, because they are tired of delivering results that nobody likes, or head off half-cocked and build things that nobody wants. Their business colleagues just want the techies to get on with it and so either give cursory instructions and leave the techies to it, or give detailed instructions that define the solution to the problem even though they aren’t the software experts.

What is really needed is to break down this communication gap and to begin collaborating. Here’s how:

Firstly, understand that this is not a linear process: One side, or the other, giving a very detailed description of what is required, or what is available, doesn’t communicate to people who don’t speak the same language, or understand the others’ role. Software development is a creative process and is complex, so it needs effective communication that both sides of this divide can understand. Communication is not one-way, its not even two-way, it has to be iterative, or circular: A conversation in which the players talk around and around, explain things from their perspectives and gradually each side gets a better appreciation of what the other does, wants to do, and what they mean.

Secondly, DON’T start off by detailing the solution. Get the IT techies and the future system users to do a ‘visioning’ exercise together, focussing on the business not the technology. Describe what the business does, what it wants to be different, what the perfect future looks like. Keep steering the conversation away from how to solve ‘the problem’, because the techies will want to revert to this and their business colleagues will follow trying to be helpful. Explore the problem and imagine what you would like to see from the perspective of the users of the system and not the people who will build it. Take time to imagine what it will be like when the new IT system works and makes your lives better. Don’t even think about the tools and resources at this stage. Then, when you do get round to defining system requirements these will be based on small, discrete, and useful features.

Finally  work closely together, both business and IT, share the ups and downs of the creative process. Enjoy the successes and working through problems and new ideas together. Review new features of the system as it evolves, so that both can see, and more importantly communicate, where it meets their needs and where it doesn’t. Software development needs steering towards success, not aim and fire. Its not a ‘Plan, Do, Finish’ kind of thing, keep going and it’ll get better and better.

Here’s our (slightly tongue in cheek:-) 1, 2, 3 guide to bridging the gap:

1. Talk in circles

2. Don’t specify the solution

3. Don’t finish the project

Please Stay

In deciding whether to vote for Scottish independence,
Please pay no heed
To the politicians and the media
Peddling their own dogmatic stance.
This is a decision for the heart and common sense.

We are family, with a long shared heritage;
Like step-brothers with mixed parentage.
We’ve had our fights, against and for each other;
I stole and ruined things that were yours
So I don’t blame you for going your own way – you have just cause.

But can we leave our chequered past behind?
And rise to meet economic and environmental challenges, our resources combined
Our commonwealth – together we are both great and British
Without you I am only England, and so diminished –
As much as I love my green and pleasant land,
There’s a northern flower I admire and cherish.

So while you’re deciding whether to vote yes or no
Please bear in mind that your brothers and sisters don’t want you to go.