Kindness in Action: Gender, Power, and Expectations

People in positions of power can do enormous damage when they project their gender expectations onto others, and even use those gender expectations to wield power.

You can jump down to some thoughts on putting kindness in action to dispel that damage, or first read a few stories that help illustrate the point as a preface.

In my last year of graduate school, just as my own academic job search began, my department hired a new chair from another university. As with any year in recent memory, few schools were hiring in the humanities. Even landing interviews with “top” schools did little to make me optimistic in the face of tight competition and a shifting discipline that favored identity studies and non-canonical texts. After on-campus interviews, departments told me that my work wasn’t “political” enough. One department told me flat out they decided it would be better to hire a woman for diversity. I didn’t want to give up yet, however. I sought out my new chair for his advice.

I sat in the chair’s office, facing his desk and silhouette in the glare of sunlight from the enormous window behind him. I brought him up to speed with my job search, where I had interviewed, where I had call-backs. I asked for his insight. Sure, I could delay finishing my dissertation and stay another year, but how could I connect better with potential hirers? Some of the advice made perfect sense, if not seeming a bit opportunistic. I could pump out an article or two to appease shifting attitudes. I listened politely, willing to consider what I needed to do for professional survival. “But, you know,” he said with an oddly dead-eyed look, “you can’t get away with being so demure. It’s not suitable.”

“Ok, sure, well thanks for the input.” I scrambled my CV and papers into my bag and went out to meet some friends on the quad. They wondered why I had so little to say. One friend finally got the story out of me. “What an asshole,” everyone agreed.

But that’s not the point of the story. And that wasn’t the end of it; as I found out much later, the powerful mentor I had reached out to was actively undermining me on the job market. The word choice says it all. “Demure.” Not “reserved,” or “shy,” or “introverted.” And presented as something I was trying to “get away with.” I had been gender-bashed for not meeting his expectations for suitable male behavior. Beyond the casual slight of a callously chosen word, it stuck with me, became gossip, and harmed my career (where, that same year, I ended up getting a job after all, and left the profession for other reasons–a story for another time).

Fast-forward to some ten years later, and I’m in a senior position at a consulting firm, on my fifth promotion in as many years. In my annual performance review, my new manager talked about my strong performance, tripling the size of one of the firms largest accounts. “The problem is we all think you’re only doing it for yourself, not for the good of the firm.” I had toughened up a bit since my days in grad school, so I asked what that meant. What was the evidence for my performance having hidden motivations and what can I do differently to change perceptions? “Now you’re just being difficult. People think it’s hard to make a point with you. You come across as being kind of bitchy.” The discussion petered out quickly from there. Again, a seemingly casual word that spoke volumes. I was being held to account for some sort of invisible characteristic and again, gender-bashed with a mis-gendering term.

In hindsight, I’m perfectly happy to own “bitchiness” as a word used by people uncomfortable with my own form of toughness, and “demure” as my own way of listening attentively. In hindsight, these subtle gender-bashings only fueled my motivation and helped move me along to the journey I have taken since, a thriving company of my own, and a path that I make mine with my own ways of being intact. Without experiences like these, I would never have come to a point of focusing on advocacy for kindness in the workplace.

But, despite the good fortune I’ve had in the meantime, these words and moments show just how much damage people in positions of power can do when they project their gender expectations onto others, and even use gender expectations to wield power. The dynamics of the presidential election this year further strengthen my awareness of the way gendered terms are used to level unfair judgment. And finally, I was inspired by a recent piece my long-time friend and colleague Carol Barash posted on LinkedIn, which triggered my thinking about gender, power, and self-empowerment.

As promised, after my long run-up to the topic, here are several kind things I recommend people do about the gendered misuse of power and judgment.

  • Be mindful of the words you use. It doesn’t matter whether you keep these words to yourself or use them in interactions. “He is so…, she is very…, you seem…” Fastidious, bossy, difficult, take your pick. Are these words that embed a gender stereotype? In my examples above, gender terms other than the gender I present were used, but stereotypes about men or women are often used to police a gap between what a person is doing and what is expected of them. Instead, you can pause, think about how else that label is used in other contexts, and why you perceive it here, and whether you should separate it from your expectations of gendered behavior.
  • Step back. It can be hard to admit to yourself that you are using gender to wield power, especially at first, but you can start even by observing and reflecting on how gender dynamics work between other people. Try it at the next meeting you attend. What are people saying and how are they interacting with each other? When are they open or closed to others’ input and how?
  • Refocus on outcomes. Sometimes, gendered labels are shorthand. Underneath them, you may have a concrete need for someone to change what they are doing. When you give feedback, the onus is on you to stake specifically and actionably what you are asking the recipient to do or do differently. In fact, that’s the only appropriate request. Instead of holding people accountable for your perception of them, be clear you are asking them to speak up more directly in meetings, with specific examples, or you are asking them to soften the way they assert themselves, with specific techniques. Don’t hang hidden, mysterious allegations over their heads.
  • Recognize it for what it is. If you ever feel gender-bashed, take a clear-eyed look at what happened and why. In the same way that you can think about the gender dimensions of your outward labels and judgments, you can think about whether words used to you or about you come from a someone wielding gender stereotypes, consciously or not, in order to exercise power. While you may not be able to “fix” it, you can at least not torment yourself trying to address feedback that cannot, maybe even purposefully cannot, be addressed.

Kind Feedback: Don’t Make This Common Manager’s Mistake

Simple concept. Managers, don’t do this!

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We don’t have to give everyone a gold star for everything they do, but let’s also free ourselves from the tendency to focus only on the negative. Managers can focus on reinforcing the best aspects of each employee’s performance. Peers, too, can shift their frame of reference, by keeping unmet expectations and concerns in proper perspective. Too often, we are conditioned to ignore what’s working well; we problematize rather than find ways to maximize and create shared progress through collaborative outcomes.

Photo credit: via Henry Ward.

Kind Business, Kind Results: (Re) Engage Consulting

In Kindness Communication’s latest Kind Business, Kind Results discussion, I spoke with Jennifer Hooten, Founder & Principal at (Re) Engage Consulting. I have the great privilege of working with Jennifer on a team of instructors offering online courses with the support of The Charter for Compassion Education Institute. I was struck by her vision for helping organizations and wanted to discuss it with her more.

Here is a transcript of the discussion:

What is your overall vision for (Re) Engage Consulting?

(Re) Engage Consulting exists to unlock the power of people.

Our work begins with a single premise: People are the single most powerful lever for organizational change.  Human potential is a critical but often neglected component of an organizational strategy. The desire to make meaningful contribution exists in everyone, but if employees aren’t plugged into their work – if they don’t think and feel that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves – then organizations aren’t getting the best from them and employees themselves feel unsatisfied.

(Re) engage means “to establish or re-establish a meaningful connection with; to take part in or participate again.”  Helping organizations participate again in a meaningful connection with their people is the most effective way to achieve lasting transformation.  This is the (Re) Engage vision and is our specialty.

When companies face big change or difficult decisions, how does kindness play a role in enabling change and moving forward?

Bringing kindness and compassion into the workplace is a critical factor in an organization’s ability to navigate change constructively – for both the individual and the company.

But before we can give any attention or energy to pursuits beyond basic survival mode (physical needs like food, water, air, etc.), we must first feel safe.

Jim Haudan says it well in his book, The Art of Engagement:

“Ranking just above [physical] needs is the most basic psychological need: the need to feel safe…When we’re afraid, we’re guarded, cautious, and restrained, and we do everything we can do regain a feeling of security.”

Most jobs today require some degree of creativity, problem-solving, awareness of self and others, openness to collaboration, etc.  Yet many workplaces are driven by manipulation, greed, and unethical decisions, which keeps people operating in survival mode and unable to make the contributions they most desire and that companies most need. Capacity for collaboration, creativity, innovation, and curiosity diminishes when one’s professional, psychological and/or emotional safety is in question.

Leaders who allow their people to spend an extended period in this survival mode can cause significant damage to themselves and those around them. This is where compassion comes in. Genuine compassion relaxes fear, increasing access to the workers’ ability to make unique and meaningful contributions.

Can you describe the before and after of a business situation where more kindness led to better outcomes?

I was hired by a real estate entity to assist them with a major restructuring.  They had recently reduced their holdings by 40 percent as well as their staff, creating an immediate need for strategic change management as well as an opportunity to re-assess the functional effectiveness of the existing organizational structure. Our goal was to address both the short and longer term needs with special emphasis on building capacity through staff development.

Those who survived the lay-offs were understandably paralyzed by fear. They were balancing a mountain of new work and the constant weight of anxiety about their job security. People began to protect departmental “turf,” trying to remain relevant and necessary. Skepticism became the norm; the large rift between those at the top and those at the bottom had grown wider.  With such low morale, how could they move forward to determine just how the work was going to get done?

We began with human needs first.  I conducted confidential, one-on-one sessions with everyone who was laid off and everyone remaining in the organization.  I listened.  I empathized.  I extended kindness and goodwill to people in the throes of threatening change. There were tears, hugs, and many awkward silences, and no easy answers.

Once we created a sense of safety, the fears subsided just enough for deeper concerns and desires to emerge.  Interview questions adapted from Dr. Frank Rogers’s Compassion Practice helped people identify and better understand reactivity around a particular situation.

These questions form a handy acronym (FLAG) that created a different conversation than would have been possible with fear in the driver’s seat. It also provided a common language for this organization to use in the future as they communicate with one another.

FLAG questions

FLAG questions open opportunities for kind dialogue in difficult situations. Feel free to share them!

From session responses, the freshly tilled soil of common ground emerged.  I reflected back to the group the general themes that were shared, and the collective release was visible in the room. People nodded in solidarity when I voiced the prevailing fears.  They noticed each other’s sighs when hearing about each others’ burdens.  Compassion flowed…and it created the foundation for a new way forward.

After paying attention to each individual experience, creating a new workflow became more a matter of details than navigating personal angst. Because we began with a compassionate response to the human experience of change, the company attained organizational results that were more comprehensive, sustainable, and humane than moving into problem-solving mode first.

Jennifer will be offering her Charter for Compassion Education Institute course, entitled “Compassion @ Work,” later in 2016. I look forward to seeing more of her approach in action and to learning more about how it activates workplace kindness.

Kind Business, Kind Results: Story2

In Kindness Communication’s latest Kind Business, Kind Results discussion, I spoke with Carol Barash, Founder and CEO of Story2. Story2 works with students to help them tell their most authentic story as a way to achieve college admission success. Unlike most other college admission support services, Story2 focuses on helping students be their own best advocate. The company offers a mix of online tools and coaching to help students explore their own stories and transform them into authentic writing for college, work, and life. It promotes the idea that telling stories unlocks a bigger, bolder life, beyond getting into college. I deeply appreciate the way they introduce this level of empathy and kindness to the highly fraught, stressful world of students aspiring to get accepted at colleges of their choice.

Here is a transcript of the discussion:

College admissions place so much stress on students and parents. The process can seem cold, even cruel, to aspiring students. How does Story2 work to make it kinder, truer to student needs, and better in outcomes?

​The college admissions process has become very commodified and transactional. Students struggle to get top grades and test scores, as if these are ends if themselves—and in the process, they often lose sight of their own purpose and possibilities in the world. Story2 encourages students to start with who they are, what they bring to college, and what they want to achieve and contribute once they get there. When you reflect on the experiences that shaped who you are today, and imagine what type of world you want to create with your unique gifts and talents, the process becomes much more positive and there is tremendous potential for student learning and growth. Students who use Story2 storytelling tools to write their college admission and scholarship essays consistently outperform students with similar grades and test scores. When you reveal your honest and authentic character—in college admissions, job search, or any part of life—people respond and want to help you.

What do you do with communities of educators and admissions professionals to promote more kindness in the process?

​First of all we help students and counselors to organize all parts of the admissions process—and especially all the different essays—so they can spend their precious time on the parts that really matter. Students can write better essays; teachers can provide one-on-one feedback; and counselors can spend time with students who most need their help. We encourage students to approach college admissions as a team sport, and to help everyone get to the shared goal of college completion with minimal debt.

How do the values that you’ve described affect the working culture at Story2, how people work together, and how you lead the business?

​We try to make Story2 a “judgement free zone.” If something goes wrong—and of course it will; that’s life—we try to look at the situation without shame or blame and see what we can learn and do differently next time. We created an instrument for team reflection that I’m ​quite proud of. It’s call an AOLP, short for Achievements Obstacles, Learning and Priorities. We created the AOLP at first to help students look at their work, day by day, with an eye to what was working and what they were learning—and what they wanted to work on next. When we applied it to our own work, we realized how much we actually do each day, and how much we could learn and grow if we pulled out even on thing we wanted to work on—our priority—for the next day.

To learn more about Story2, visit their website at www.story2.com. You can experiment with their EssayBuilder to learn more about their step-by-step, kindness-based process for completing powerful college essays, or help out high school students and parents you know by sharing the link with them.

Kind Business, Kind Results is a monthly series of posts in which Kindness Communication interviews business leaders who strongly exemplify kindness values and practices. If you’d like to participate, please reach out.

Let’s demilitarize marketing

I have worked in marketing and communications for many years. Times such as these, most recently faced with the massacre of ordinary people in Paris just living their lives, remind me of a fundamental reservation I felt when entering this field. Why does marketing language tilt towards militarization and violence? If we believe that language and tone matter, should we not promote a change in the dynamic, and demilitarize marketing?

I came to my current profession by way of studying and then teaching French literature at the university level. That experience made many of the quirks of business language sound odd to my ears, but, over time, I assimilated, and wrote off my discomfort as the naive perspective of inexperience. I concluded it didn’t matter, and that I could ignore how strange it is to consider what we do as “strategy,” to speak about “penetrating” a market, to consider our audiences as “targets,” all straight out of the domain of military planning and tactics.

Yet a violent world calls for deeper reflection, calls for accepting that discomfort, and finally calls for constructing a better view of the world. To repeat, language and tone matter, so after a steady stream of mass murders by lone actors and by coordinated groups, I can no longer let it pass. Not in my own thinking, and I ask my peers to demilitarize their own mindset, too.

  • I will no longer call people “targets.” In my marketing and in my work for clients, I am helping them connect with humans. And, along the same lines, I won’t “target” any audiences. I will focus on connection and engagement.
  • I will no longer wage “campaigns.” For now, I have no better words than “initiative,” or “effort,” but in this case the less vivid language suits my purposes better.
  • I will no longer develop “strategies.” I will craft approaches, plan programs and projects, and then work with my colleagues to carry them.

Seemingly everyone in business speaks this way, so even in stating my commitments, I know I will slip. I will certainly not position myself as a language policeman to correct others who use this militarized language. But maybe, just maybe, it will wield the same subtle influence that I believe words have in connecting with people. And maybe, just maybe, it will demilitarize our world just one little bit.

 

Kind Interview Questions For Recruiting and Hiring

Quoted in: “10 of the Most Revealing Interview Questions to Ask Job Candidates,” Spark Hire Human Resources Blog

[One of the most revealing job interview questions you can ask is] “Give me two or three examples of things you do to show kindness and consideration to your colleagues.”

Employers should focus on questions that reveal behavior and character. They should go above and beyond the skills for meeting the job requirements. That’s how you know your hire will mesh well with your team or company, rather than turning out to be a costly regret.

Questions like this help you assess how prospective hires see themselves in relationship to other people and specific circumstances. You can use them to spot the difference between people who are active, engaged problem-solvers and people who are passive and disengaged.

You can also be attentive to more than just the content of the answer, and focus on HOW they tell the story. Factors such as the way they describe themselves and the details they choose as relevant are a great indicator of how they might perform and what will matter to them if you hire them.

– Christopher G. Fox, founder, Kindness Communication