Combining the managerial skill sets of both genders can make you a more well-adjusted, creative, and effective leader. Here are some ways to do it.
In Part 1 of this article, I made the case that there are definite benefits to being a gender conscious manager. But if the skills of the opposite gender can be so useful, what stops us from learning them?
Sometimes ignorance stands in our way, because we just weren’t taught the skills as members of our gender. Boys don’t get much sensitivity training, and girls are rarely pushed to be assertive. Sometimes we had negative role models for these skills — say, a man’s powerless mother, or a woman’s overbearing father.
And sometimes we are blocked by learned fear of the opposite-sex skills themselves. Throughout our lives, we’ve been told that the skills of the opposite sex should be avoided, and that we are disloyal or defective members of our gender if we practice them.
It’s natural for us to unconsciously internalize these attitudes, with men worrying that they are “wimps” if they compromise, and women worrying that they are “bitches” if they assert themselves. So standing in our way is not only a fear of the unknown, but also a fear of losing our very identity when we try out these skills.
But not all barriers are the result of our individual choices or misguided indoctrination. Our society and institutions also enforce gender norms upon us, and I believe that women, more so than men, face real practical barriers to practicing more masculine skills. I think this is worth discussing further because it is so real to women and not very real to most men.
On special barriers to women in leadership
There is no doubt that women face much more external resistance than men when simply practicing skills that are considered to be the domain of the other gender.
We see it all the time. Women who criticize are called bitches. Women who take charge are called bossy. There’s no equivalent of either term for men.
Due to our double standard of gender expectations, we assume that men simply have the legitimate right to criticize or take control. And there is much less “gender enforcement” when men break type and show a sensitive side — even if it is a bit confusing for people, as evidenced by the reaction to Barack Obama’s post-election crying spell.
This isn’t just a difference in behaviors that society finds acceptable. There are real, sexist barriers that women face in how their ideas and skills are valued and recognized. It’s very common for men to be promoted on the basis of their potential, whereas women are promoted only in recognition for past achievements. Women are told they must downplay their status; men, on the other hand, are told they should flaunt it.
American culture also sends women the mixed message that they should be both powerful in the business world and also perfect, sensitive wives and mothers. Women who choose to do one OR the other are looked down upon. It’s really quite unfair: we effectively force women to be androgynous and yet judge them when they are.
The list of cultural expectations goes on and on, not to mention the explicitly sexist organizational cultures, lack of access to informal mentoring networks, and excessive time demands due to family expectations.
As a man, I recognize that I have a certain privileged status in the business world. For the most part, business culture itself is not my enemy; rather, I am my own enemy. My problem is mostly internal resistance, and this article is mostly about overcoming internal resistance to change. I’m sorry that I can’t fully explore all the solutions to this problem, but I recognize it. If people like, I’ll write more about how to overcome external resistance later.
How to acquire new management skills without fear
When we try out new, unfamiliar skills — or even just get a little close to an unfamiliar way of doing things — we often feel a strong fear of potential failure and rejection. These negative thoughts about ourselves can make us so intensely uncomfortable, that if we sense anything approaching them, we are suddenly plunged into negative emotions in ways we don’t even consciously understand.
Psychologists like Paul Ekman and Nico Frijda found that we arrive at our emotions, and even react to them, several seconds before we even understand WHY we are feeling those emotions. These automatic reactions can even block us from understanding what we are doing and why. This is one mechanism behind procrastination, for example: unconsciously fearing failure, we jump immediately to postponement, often without considering the reasons for the fear in the first place. These deep-seated negative thoughts are hard to overcome, but there are ways to do it.
There are four methods that we can use to overcome fears of the new. They can all be productive in their own ways, and can easily used in combination with each other.
- Consulting peers. First, you can find colleagues or mentors with whom you can share your concerns and investigate strategies to approach problems without touching the third rail of emotion. This is second nature to many women; it is less so for men, since men often fear exposing their doubts or vulnerabilities.This is often a good approach, but the problem is that your “advisory board” may reinforce the very same stereotypes that you are trying to overcome, making it impossible to move forward! Risk-loving “groupthink” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink) behaviors can all too easily occur when your advisors are too similar to you in assumptions and outlook.
- Watching media. Second, you can use news and media to learn about other people who have solved these problems. Media is a powerful form of socialization, and it’s easy to find stories about men and women who are successful as well. Again, however, it is not uncommon for the media to draw conclusions that may provide a comfortable reinforcement of stereotypes. Steve Jobs’ biography, for example, has probably convinced a whole generation of managers that self-centered, narcissistic behavior is normal, and even a sign of genius, when it’s clear that Jobs profoundly alienated hundreds of talented colleagues over the course of his career.
- Professional coaches. Coaches can help you investigate and refine your dilemmas and recognize your emotions. They can also help you understand your own limiting contexts and perspectives on risk, and help you explore what these have cost you, both figuratively and literally. Coaches can help you explore options for overcoming your fears and focusing on your bigger objectives and commitments. There’s really no downside to the use of a professional coach; though there is the additional expense, it can be considered an investment in one’s overall personal and professional satisfaction and success. (I credit professional coach Lisa Carpenter for helping me explore many of the ideas contained in this post. She also has special expertise in women’s leadership issues.)
- Self-directed practice. A fourth alternative is overcoming fears by yourself. This may seem really difficult to do alone, but I have found that methods of cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, may actually be a very productive way to deal with scary new practices. CBT has been in use for decades and has been scientifically proven to be effective for a whole range of problems, such as fear, anxiety, procrastination, and even depression.
I myself have found CBT very useful for learning new habits and behaviors. In fact, I think it is so useful that I’d like to explore how you can use CBT to overcome gender fears and learn new practices. And these methods can work even better with the help of a professional coach or peer, who can help you surface your fears and make you accountable for achieving results.
What cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is about
As mentioned above, negative thoughts can derail our thinking and cause us to instantly feel negative emotions that cause us to stop practicing new skills. CBT is a problem-solving framework that breaks this cycle.
CBT helps you isolate these automatic negative thoughts and question their reality. This allows you to replace the negative thoughts with new, more realistic positive thoughts, and try out new behaviors that will enable you to move forward. With positive feedback from these new behaviors, you can start to see the world in new ways, and gradually put an end to those self-defeating thoughts that slow you down.
This is easier to explain by talking about concrete examples for men and women. Let’s take a look at some.
How to try out masculine skills
Sometimes we think that women can’t try out masculine skills (like self-assertion) because they are not “ladylike.” But that’s not really the problem. More likely, it is usually because they have internalized one or more of these root negative beliefs — which may or may not be realistic:
- “If I assert myself, I will be rejected or criticized.”
- “If I assert myself, I will cause disruption and conflict.”
- “If I assert myself, I will be displaying inappropriate anger or desperation.”
- “If I assert myself, I will be left all alone and isolated.”
- “If I assert myself, I will be unsuccessful and proven to be a failure.”
In many cases, these beliefs are not even held consciously. The thoughts and their implications move so quickly through the mind that they provoke an automatic, almost reflexive emotional reaction, like:
- “I can’t do that.”
- “That would mess everything up.”
- “I can’t even think about that.”
- “Ugh, I don’t feel well.”
Due to cultural training, women often turn these feelings and fears on themselves, blaming themselves for the problem or “somatizing” the emotions. This means the negative feelings turn up as physical maladies like sadness, weariness, or headaches.
So how do you overcome these fears — fears that filter what you see, tinge your emotions, and cause you to react to selectively misinterpret facts? This is where CBT methods come in and help you move forward. There are many methods in CBT, but let’s try out a simple example.
Case study for women: Using CBT to ask for a promotion
Say you’re a woman, and you need to assert yourself by asking for a promotion.
For many women, just imagining the conversation makes you worried and ill. You worry what others will think of you. You immediately imagine the rejection, the possible feelings of failure, the hurt feelings if you don’t get what you want. It’s so easy to shy away and say, “I’m outta here!”
But let’s look at the problem more realistically. Sure, you might get rejected, but you might also be accepted. Are you a mind reader? Plus you may “fail” in this one little way, but does that mean you’re a failure in your job, or in your life? Not at all! And how can you predict what your boss will think of you if you ask? Your boss has many positive perceptions of you — this one thing is highly unlikely to doom or destroy your relationship forever.
Protected by more realistic thoughts, or even positive ones, you can approach the problem rationally and make the request without anxiety. You can consider the action more thoroughly, and think about ways to make your petition easier for your boss to say “yes” to — or harder for him or her to say “no” to. And even if deep down you expect failure, isn’t it better and more functional to walk into the situation as if you were going to succeed, with calm and self-assurance? Absolutely! So fake it ’til you make it, as they say.
More than likely, your actions will demonstrate a feeling of initiative and self-worth that will benefit you well into the future, or at a minimum, assure your boss that you’re looking for productive ways to move forward.
Note that nothing you did has made you any less feminine in your management style, or any more masculine either. What you’ve simply done is found a gender-neutral way to acknowledge your discomfort, address old fears, and take on new, positive behaviors. It’s actually not that dissimilar to what many top women CEOs recommend.
With practice and support, you can learn to overcome fears that stand in the way of your being more self-assertive and directive: in other words, to being a gender conscious manager who has overcome the limitations of gender stereotyping.
So that’s just a taste of CBT: there are over a dozen methodologies, and I recommend David Burns’ Feeling Good Handbook (yes, kind of silly name) for a good list of exercises and how to use them.
How to try out feminine skills
Self-defeating beliefs are certainly not unique to women. Men, too, are faced with ambiguous situations that would often be better served by asking for advice, de-escalating conflict, considering compromise, or admitting blame. Yet it’s all too easy for men to pull out the go-to reactions of anger, brusqueness, and impulse, even when they know it may lead to poor outcomes. Why do we men do this?
As with women, the reaction comes down to fear, though fear of a different kind. Often when men say they can’t compromise on some issue, deep down they are often thinking:
- “If I compromise, I will be seen as weak, anxious, or vulnerable.”
- “If I compromise, I will be seen as imperfect.”
- “If I compromise, I will make a mistake and be criticized.”
- “If I compromise, I won’t get everything I can, and I’ll be a failure.”
Being weak or a failure is a devastating thought for most men, striking at the very core of our identities. When we show weakness, we don’t think of ourselves as less masculine. Instead, we think less of ourselves as a person.
The difference in the way men and women react comes out in how we men deal with emotions provoked by these negative thoughts. With men — and especially American men — this discomfort, frustration, and confusion is turned into a variety of “extroverted” emotions like:
- Pained withdrawal
- Alternately blaming self and blaming others
This is not to ignore the possible reactions of anxiety, guilt, sadness, isolation, or depression — both men and women experience these feelings. I have just found that these “active” externalizations are more typical of men’s reactions and are an observable sign that something is wrong or troubling to us.
My message is: We men can overcome these negative emotions! We can overcome these self-defeating feelings by adopting more gender conscious behaviors of leadership and self-management, using the same CBT techniques described above. Let’s see an example.
Case study for men: Using CBT to accept responsibility
Say you’re a man who has made a grave mistake about something you care about. Maybe you made a colleague extremely upset, or took an unreasonable risk on your own without consulting anybody.
In these situations, men (American men in particular) often find it very hard to admit they were wrong. In fact, they do whatever they can to avoid the problem. Typically they try to ignore it or to “power through” the problem. They blame the person who was offended.
If forced by circumstances to admit they were wrong, I find men often choose one of the following dysfunctional messages:
- “I wasn’t wrong (and here’s my elaborate justification)”
- “I wasn’t wrong (and you’re an idiot or ‘B-Player’ if you disagree)”
- “I’m sorry (that I got caught).”
- “I’m sorry (but you took it the wrong way).”
- “I’m sorry (but I won’t listen to how hurt and angry you feel)”
- “I’m sorry (but you know I’m an ass, so it’s really your problem)”
- “I’m sorry (so let’s move quickly to something else and make it all better)”
The list goes on and on. (Politicians are excellent sources of these elaborate self-justifications.)
For many men, accepting blame contradicts most everything they’ve learned as males. It is looking backwards at problems, not forwards to solutions. Accepting blame implies accepting weakness, which is especially taboo in front of other males. It implies poor judgment, incompetence, or lack of knowledge — and it could make people wonder about your decision-making ability going forward. In other words, your credibility as a man, a leader, and a person appears to be at stake.
It is no wonder that accepting blame is an option that is often rejected out of hand, often unconsciously, to pursue and project an ideal of omnipresent strength, power, and competence. But using CBT, men can get a more realistic perspective on the problem and acknowledge that these behaviors are a cover for their own fears.
First, how do you know if you will be perceived as weak, incompetent, or stupid? Do you have evidence that this will happen? And let’s say that you actually are perceived to be weak, stupid, or incompetent. Will people reject all your judgments? Are you discounting all the areas where you do things right? Are you blowing this whole issue out of proportion? Even if you fail in this one little way, does it mean you’re a failure in your job, or in your life? Not at all! This one thing isn’t going to doom or destroy your career forever.
Armed with more positive, realistic thoughts, you can approach the problem with greater wisdom and humility. You can acknowledge the truth that something bad happened, and that the other side was correct. You can make an effort to empathize with the hurt party, and find out more about how they felt. And you can gain better awareness of yourself without accusing or disrespecting the other side.
While admitting blame might make you uncomfortable for all the reasons we discussed above, your actions will demonstrate a wisdom and self-knowledge that will likely benefit you in the future, and will assure those around you that you are a person who is trustworthy, sympathetic, and reasonable.
Note that accepting responsibility did not make you any less masculine or powerful. Rather, you’re using gender-conscious tools to overcome fears that hurt your decision-making and adopt new, more effective behaviors. As you practice these new skills, you will receive positive feedback that will diffuse fears that openness is the same as weakness, and make it second nature to be authentic, express feelings, ask for help, and seek compromise.
Again, I recommend David Burns’ Feeling Good Handbook for a comprehensive list of CBT exercises and how to use them.
Gender conscious management: good for everyone
Now, I made a lot of gender generalizations above. I assumed women needed help being assertive, and men needed help being expressive. But these supposed deficits, as well as the skills themselves, really transcend gender. Very few of us are purely masculine or feminine in all respects. We ALL have fears and weaknesses that hold us back, and these methods can be helpful in overcoming fears and in learning any new, uncomfortable skill.
Plus for men (like me!) who often don’t exemplify the ultra-macho leadership ideal, or for women who don’t embody the “soft” caretaker ideal, these same methods can help you expand your skills in both directions — to engage in both more masculine and more feminine behaviors, without overstressing or losing your identity. Even those who are naturally more gender balanced can use help being more gender conscious managers!
One final note: these methods of personal transformation can’t fix everything. As I said above, it may be hard to try out gender conscious management styles at an organization that directly or indirectly reinforces classic gender expectations. Plus, changing the culture of an entire company or its management team to increase gender inclusiveness requires a whole different methodology, one more suited to a major organization development effort. I can cover these in follow-up articles, if there’s demand.
If you liked this article or have further questions, please leave a comment. Good luck!