Welcome to “Dear Dana”, our regular column to give you career and workplace advice/coaching. Please write in and tell me about a career challenge or frustration you’re facing at the office! –Dana Theus
Dear Dana, I’ve recently been promoted to an executive position in my company and I read your article about how senior women can help change corporate culture regarding gender and sexual discrimination and harassment. In my new position, I now see things that are walking the line of sexism and unconscious bias. Your article was insightful, but I’m a man. What do you suggest I do to help change our macho corporate culture from the top without undermining myself and being positioned as a goodie-two-shoes? I really want to help create change. My daughter is just entering the workforce and I can see that the culture my peers are creating would be unfair and uncomfortable for her. – In a Bind in Boston
Dear In a Bind,
Thank you for your inquiry! You’ve identified a key issue. If more men asked the question you’re posing here to change the corporate culture from the inside, we’d see more change happen faster! Men and women both have a role to play in creating gender diverse workplaces where everyone feels comfortable contributing their best. Women are more aware of the problem than men right now and I believe that when men become more fully engaged we’ll start moving quickly towards a solution.
The core of my advice is for you to demonstrate to your peers and direct reports what it looks like to lead and achieve results without resorting to the kinds of bullying and disrespectful behavior the current culture permits. The more you treat others with respect while at the same time showing that this does not mean being weak or a “goody-two-shoes” the more others can begin to sign on to the culture shift you represent. Below I’ve given you three ways to begin to think about how you can shape the culture generally and with respect to the subtle forms of discrimination and bias you’re seeing.
In addition to that, I recommend you learn what it means to combat “Bystander Sexism” in the workplace. This is an important subject and I plan to write more on it in the future (be sure to subscribe to the blog so you’ll get notification when it posts.) You may also find some good advice in this previous article about how women can help women they mentor or supervise: No Sexism Here.
3 Ways A Male Executive Can Shift a Discriminatory Corporate Culture
Own Your Influence As An Executive: You don’t control your employees’ feelings but you have a larger impact on them than you may want to admit. In general, corporate culture is the amalgam of everyone’s behavior, but if the average employee’s actions are a pebble dropping into the culture pond, yours are a boulder. How you treat people, in public and private, does more to create cultures that tolerate – or don’t — unquestioned bias, micro-aggressions and outright discrimination than anything else. When it comes to how the culture deals with bias and discrimination, when you choose to be a bystander and let “little things” go by, you aren’t being neutral, you’re being complicit and reinforcing the culture that allows these things to go unnoticed and unchallenged. The reverse is also true, when you notice or challenge these things, two things happen. First, many who are unconscious of the bias in the culture become more conscious of it. Second, you open the door for the culture to begin to change by giving others who have been silent permission to also notice and challenge. This is how cultures of all kinds change. And fundamentally, challenging it is a sign of strength, not weakness. The key is to challenge in a way that is not aggressive. This is a tricky line to walk, but it can be done by detriggering yourself so you don’t get your own ego hung up on, and attached, to whether your challenge changes things or not.
Build Psychological Safety Into Your Leadership Habit: A culture where some people feel uncomfortable and singled out is a culture bereft of psychological safety. People negatively stigmatize each other when they feel vulnerable to shame and blame. You expressed some concern about this, not wanting to be shamed into the “goody-two-shoes” position. When the culture refuses to tolerate shame and blame generally, people’s positive contributions come more readily to the fore, and subtle expressions of bias and sexism can be more easily identified as shameful and out of place. There’s a lot you can do, personally, to remove shame and blame from the company culture, simply by how you run your meetings and discussions, publicly and privately. Become a master at creating psychological safety and show others how it’s done.
Co-opt the Invisible Hand of Culture to Stand Against Discrimination: Once you own your ability to help create a culture where bias is challenged and psychological safety is the norm in your sphere of influence, you begin to access the power to wield the invisible hand of culture. Culture takes your place in leading and providing direction when you’re not physically present. If you want employees to interact in ways that are respectful to everyone, and to try to counteract their own biases, then you need to become intentional about rooting out the behaviors that work against this dynamic. Certainly, generalized shame and blame fall into that category, but so do many others, which may be specific to your corporate culture and leadership culture. Learn what these specific behaviors look like, including accepted vocabulary and decision-making processes; work to replace them with behaviors and processes that support a respectful culture in your own realm of influence. Turn this cultural awareness and maintenance into a leadership habit and you’ll find the invisible hand of culture supporting you all along the way.
I really want to commend you for your desire to help do this particularly challenging leadership work. If you want to go more deeply, contact me about some individual coaching and I’d be happy to support you.
P.S. – Have a question you’d like anonymous support on? Write me!