Biased Leadership

Organizational change always brings about thoughts of how leadership is affected by external influences and historical biases. This exchange was me trying to work through some of these thoughts.

From: Dena
Date: Sat, Nov 11 2017 at 10:30 AM
Subject: Leadership & Bias
To: Mom & Sis

Hi fam,

I can’t help but think about leadership and management at work these days – your favourite. We’re going through a lot of transformation, and there’s an effort for it to be a transparent and inclusive process. It’s making me think about how you could account for the biases that an organization and its constituents drag into change processes. How much change can you actually hope for if you’re shackled by inherent biases and unaware of how they’re shaping the ideas you deem as important and the voices you amplify.

There was this article in the Harvard Business Review recently on how men get credit for voicing ideas but not problems and women get credit for neither: HBR Link.

The research isn’t perfect but it does give some food for thought. Sure, you’re supposed to speak up to get recognition as a leader, but apparently you’re seen as less of a leader if you’re voicing concern or criticism (i.e. the prohibitive voice) as opposed to voicing a new idea (i.e. the promotive voice). This isn’t shocking since you can’t move forward on criticism alone, but it is interesting that we devalue efforts to think critically. In my experience at least, it’s usually through conversation around the flaws in a process that you’re able to identify what new, revised strategies would be more effective. The iterative process is so important. I’d venture to say that the real leader in the room is the person who’s been able to listen to both the naysayers and the go-getters and to reconcile them into a coherent way forward.

Then there’s the type of gender (or age or race etc.) biases mentioned in that article. You’ve heard me talk ad nauseam about the leadership gap as it relates to gender equity (way fewer women making it up the ranks, etc). I still feel that this problem is more than just the bias of not seeing women as “leaders.” It’s exacerbated by having a dysfunctional view of what a leader should be in the first place. If everyone’s so busy trying to formulate a dazzling contribution – or lean in – in order to assert their capacity to lead, then who’s actually left to listen… I just can’t help but feel like we keep looking up to the wrong types of people. The heroes are the loud pushy ones who “get shit done.” But if what’s done is actually shit. Then isn’t it maybe worth taking a slower, perhaps more circuitous path to getting it done – a path that actively challenges lazy deference towards the usual suspects. Isn’t the hero actually the one with the fewest, but perhaps the most potent, lines in the screenplay.

I imagine this is all even more pronounced in engineering. I’d be curious to hear both your reflections. It’d be interesting to see too if a lot’s actually changed between your generations.

Love you/ can’t wait for the holidays!

From: Mom
Date: Sat, Nov 11 2017 at 3:04 PM
Subject: RE: Leadership & Bias
To: Dena & Sis

Regarding gender bias, I don’t think I can say that much. Women left home just 60-70 years ago. So, we still have a long way to go.

Regarding promotive versus prohibitive voice: they call it tact. This is what I have been struggling with all my life. Aside from the fact that I never had any interest in a leadership role, but I always had a knack for seeing and recognizing the problems. Time and time again life has proved me right about my criticisms, but most of the time I wasn’t able to get people to see my point and act upon it before it was too late. The main reason for my struggle has been a lack of tact. In another word, blunt people hurt others and put them in a defensive mode. People cannot function effectively in their defensive mode.

So, I don’t believe we devalue criticism. It’s just that our complicated emotional build doesn’t help us in staying calm and focused on the constructive aspects of a criticism. We need lots of added accessories and garnish to be able to appreciate or digest criticism. We just can’t handle it in its naked, undecorated way. We always say, “okay fine, I see your point, but what do you suggest as a solution”?

Now, you say a leader is the one who can listen to both naysayers and the go-getters. So, are you saying that the leader is the one who grabs everyone else’s ideas and runs with them to bring about change? hahaha. To some extent, that’s actually rung true in my personal experiences working at the school. The principal is somewhat like that. When she first started, it didn’t take her too long to realize that she couldn’t follow the path of previous principals and  expect positive change in the school environment. She cleverly started listening to everyone and gradually implemented different improvements based on criticisms and solutions.

This solution, however, has a problem: She was already a principal. How can an employee who is not in a place of power and decision making climb the leadership ladder through listening? Hmm. This would likely need people who are great at networking and chatting. They gather visions and ideas, polish them and put them forward in a diplomatic way as their promotive voice. Which brings us back to tact and diplomacy!

Sorry, if it is circular blabbing.

From: Sis
Date: Tues, Nov 14 2017 at 5:05 PM
Subject: RE: Leadership & Bias
To: Dena & Mom

It might just be the people I surround myself with, but I see less of the “people that get shit done” being leaders and more just people that listen and are able to take people’s separate ideas and put them together to move forward (male or female). Like in our student societies most of the presidents that are deemed as “good leaders” by popular opinion are the ones that can communicate properly and create a more cohesive environment. The ones that try to push their own ideas forward and fight against the people working under them are looked down on. And I’ve seen this over the past 3 years, but again, I think it’s just the people I’m around. Probably not like this once I go into industry, but I think it should be.

As for gender bias…well…I dunno, sure it exists but I guess the interesting thing is that I don’t feel it exists with the guys I’ve done my degree with. Because we’ve had the same experiences and especially cause of the positions I’ve had, they don’t see me/the girls in the faculty as any lower or anything, but from an outsider perspective, yea it exists and it will for at least a few more decades I think.


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