Are we taken at face value at work? Or is something else going on?

Post in: German

Reflect for a moment: Are you where you want to be in your work life? Do you have the feeling that you’re not taken at face value, that you’re not coming across as you are? Do you have ideas about why that’s happening? Do you have solutions for yourself?
The Organization “Women in Business” at BASF invited me to be one of the annual speakers in their program for networking and career development. The topic they chose to hear more about is “Authentic at Work: Handling role models and expectations with awareness” (Authentisch bei der Arbeit: Bewusster umgehen mit Rollenmodellen und –erwartungen). I began with the questions above.
The experiment of Asch (1946) does an excellent job of illustrating how a master status or “central” quality influences the way we see all other qualities. Gender, race, age, or even the ascription of someone being warmhearted or cold in his or her personality tends to influence the way we view a lot of other characteristics about that person. Knowing this phenomenon helps us to understand why sometimes others put us in boxes.
Associations are important. Prior experiences are important. Context is important.
Associations are important. Prior experiences are important. Context is important. Here’s an example of why it’s hard for women in Germany at the workplace: The front of the most-widely-purchased German newspaper, “Bild,” had a naked young woman on the front cover each day for 28 years (until 2012). The blatant presence of women as sex symbols on the cover of the most-sold paper heightens the associations between “woman” with sex symbol. “Bild” girl or mother, cleaning woman or secretary. When men and women encounter women in a few narrow roles day in and day out, how shall they suddenly assume that the woman who just entered the room is the leader of the department or the firm? Our minds don’t stay open to every option automatically. We have to keep opening our minds, deliberately.
Sometimes we see information that’s not there. It’s a classic: a tall man with a loud, deep voice and a firm handshake is assumed to have leadership characteristics. He might have no clue. But he’s given the opportunity to try, 99 times more often than the woman of small stature with the quiet voice and the soft handshake. She may be better able to motivate people, make decisions, understand what’s going on, react intelligently to changing situations than that tall loud man would be. But the people she’s leading, and the ones deciding to put her in the position, need more convincing. We see things that are not there, and we are blind to things that are there, if they’re not packed in familiar wrappings.
Humans also tend to assume that when things or people look alike, they are alike. We likewise overestimate the differences among people or things that look different. We have to train ourselves to regard individual situations and people as the individual examples that they are.
The process looks like this: we select out only that information that we think is relevant or meaningful: selection. We ascribe and assign characteristics to the person or thing we’re identifying, related to the things that we have identified, and infer these unobserved – and sometimes unobservable – characteristics: inference. And then we categorize: we make typologies, compare the new observation with the typologies we’ve already got in our head, based on the characteristics we’ve decided are relevant, and assign the new case to the types we’re carrying around in our heads.
Fun humans!
One drawback for women in leadership is that the characteristics assigned to a good leader are, so far anyway, often opposite from the characteristics typically assigned to a good woman. According to extensive research by Alice Eagly and colleagues, a good leader is supposed to be directive, clear, independent, active, self-confident, and strong. A good woman is supposed to be attentive to the needs of others, cooperative, passive, not setting herself in the center of attention, and weak. Fortunately, our definitions of leaders and women are changing, and moving closer together. It turns out that the most effective kind of leadership – transformational leadership — has a lot of the characteristics that women bring to the workplace: the transformational leader is charismatic, inspiring, motivating, intellectually stimulating, and gives individualized consideration for the needs of those being led. As long as we keep on course, recognizing the new talents coming into leadership, and catch ourselves before assuming that the man would be the better leader, we’re going to have a stronger team of leaders in the future than we’ve ever had in the past.
Being authentic at work means bringing ones values, vision, and talents to the table, desk, boardroom, or shop floor. Good leaders know how to bring out the authenticity and the talents of their teams. This is because good leaders know their own values and visions, too, and live them so that others may also live them.
One way to handle the contradictions is to be what Debra Meyerson calls a “tempered radical.” With small steps, one can accomplish great change. Even if the organizational culture and the values of the person seem to be at odds, small steps, seen by others, open spaces for transformation.

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