Tag Archives: humans at work

The disembodiment of leadership

I asked on a LinkedIn post recently ‘How would you describe leadership?’ The words I got in response included; enabling, inspiring, self-awareness, humility, authenticity, transparency, resilience, supporting, helping, recognising, empowering, facilitating, influencing, understanding, and nurturing (Sterling, 2019). These words imply a human-centered interest in one’s followers. But as I traverse the world of practitioner discourse and academic research into leadership, I’m beginning to feel inclined towards framing leadership as a disembodied experience. One further disconnected from the human experience than encapsulating it. There are several different ways I see this happening and I’d like to invite you to question your own norms and assumptions as I explore these, as well as propose some areas that offer potential to re-imagine leadership more humanely.

This all starts with how we understand leadership and how we play to the power of that. There are many different interpretations and definitions. Asking that question I posed at the start of this post – ‘How would you describe leadership?’ – generated a broad range of answers. Leadership is less a thing that can be objectively described, like ‘water’ is ‘water’, but a subjective construct that is open to many different interpretations and enactments. We drift to what’s popular, what’s within our sphere of understanding, what feels a comfortable level of discomfort for us. But it’s as if the very complexity and fluidity of leadership leaves it more open to established and entrenched norms and assumptions dictating how we understand it. What we know rushes in to fill the gap of what we don’t. 

So what are the norms and assumptions at the foundation of leadership? The big one is gender, and the stereotypes we are ‘captive’ to and complicit in. From an early age we perform the gender roles assigned to our bodies by identifying with a learned ideology, ‘girl’ or ‘boy’, and constantly creating ourselves in that image (see West & Zimmerman, 1987). We judge, and are judged by the labels and meanings attached to these bodies. Our own understandings, beginning with our first experiences, and developed over time. Our first encounter with leadership is via our parents; generally speaking the authoritarian father and the caring and nurturing mother (Sinclair, 2004). These are powerful constructs of self, and others that hold sway over us. Our ways of ‘being’ in this world are closely aligned with our need to be connected to other humans, to be seen, to belong. Our status as humans is called into question if we challenge norms. So, as Butler (2004) puts it, this means complying no matter how restrictive, debilitating or unrealistic these norms seem to be. 

It’s in this humanness, our need to define our world by what is normal, that we subert what makes us human; our bodies. We don’t ‘see’ humans anymore. We see a constructed ideology. One associated with leadership, and one associated with the appropriate genders of our leaders. These are overlapping constructs and have implications for the inclusion, or exclusion, of particular traits or behaviours. Critiques of the symbolism, undertone and focus of leadership revolves around a masculine narrative (see Sinclair, 2005; Ford & Harding, 2011; Ford & Harding, 2007; Nicholson & Carroll, 2013; and these are just what I’ve read so far!). When we ‘see’ leadership it’s generally a white man, poised in his power suit, or charismatically approachable with his open buttons and blazer. Ironically, men in leadership don’t get judged on their bodies but women do. Yet, we don’t ‘see’ leaders when women demonstrate behaviours that could be considered leadership if only we’d broaden our spectrum (Nixon & Sinclair, 2017). Where women are positioned as leaders, their contributions are undervalued even if they are creating economic value (Abdullah et al, 2016). Or they are more susceptible to harsh stereotyping or strict scrutiny that may affect firm performance metrics (Hoobler, et al, 2018). We have discomfort towards women with power (Nixon & Sinclair, 2017). Simply put a woman isn’t fitting into our normative understanding of her gender role, and what we imagine as leadership. She is penalised; not for what she does, but for what we believe.

So how would you describe a leader? Referring back to those words I used at the beginning; they are perfect, and perfectly aspirational. This beautiful manifestation of a leader knows themselves well enough to self-regulate and be true to the core to their values, preferences and emotions; they are able to connect with people, win acceptance, and know what to reveal to whom. They are inherently good, virtuous, with the utmost standards of moral leadership (Ford & Harding, 2011). We all want to be lead by a person like this. We may even want to be that person. This ideal has such a powerful hold on our consciousness. It’s certainly well intentioned. It plays to our desire to create a better world. But it’s the infallible allure of this, untouchability in its perfection, transcendence above the mere mundane ‘managers’ and ‘workers’, that positions leaders as above us mere mortals with our fallibilities and dark sides. It underscores the prevailing heroic, grandiose, ‘god-like’ archetype of leadership. And who do you picture when you read of gods? Leadership is simultaneously disembodied, above corporeal concerns, and masculine. 

What are the options? Ignore gender in the embodiment of leadership? We’re supposedly on a level playing field after all. Gender equality and all that. But Kelan’s (2010) study of ICT workers is a nice illustration of the perils of ignoring gender, to the continual reinforcement of the dominant bodied norms. These workers insisted that the workplace was gender neutral. Yet this quote and summary illustrates the subtext: “one should not bring to the foreground that one is a woman” (Kelan, 2010; p. 184) and then there is no discrimination. In leaving bodies at the door, we robe ourselves in a masculine worker ideal disguised as gender equality. But on the flip-side, where femininity is addressed (in the neo-liberal / faux feminist agenda, see McRobbie, 2009) it acts as a safety net of feminine values as we negotiate power with men. Both a stepping forth into the workplace and an apology for doing so; ‘it’s ok, I’m just a girl’. Ignoring femaleness in favour of a dominant work ideology emphasises that being a professional is being a man. Yet, expressing feminine embodiment within a masculine work culture could do more to subvert bodies than triumph them. Gender equality is not sameness, a level playing field or an assimilation, but a fearless expression of human embodiment within a context where this is welcomed. 

The presence of bodies, or lack thereof, remains an issue in the workplace. Women are still not making it into senior leadership positions, in fact the number in New Zealand is going backwards (Diversity Works, 2019). The bodies are simply not there. I am not proposing here that women necessarily have a better, or even different, way of leading (I might explore that in another post). But I invite you to question whether, in our quest for the ultimate, human, leader, we’ve made leadership an unattainable, disembodied concept? One that places women’s bodies as ‘other’ to the norm. Sinclair and Nixon (2017) suggest that being more anchored in our own bodies could consciously change our mindset towards ourselves and others influencing a leader’s capacity for openness and learning. And that bodies outside the norms, give greater opportunities to challenge them. Could registering feelings, including our dark sides, tensions and challenges; as well as embracing our messy, fleshy, corporealness, give us greater connection to our humanity and more ‘real’ forms of leadership? In my own research, I’m looking to explore whether embracing the embodiment, enactment and experience of being a mother could move leadership into a new conversation. One where real human bodies matter because they’re allowed to show up as such, not just as who we imagine them to be, or filtered by what we’re comfortable with. 

 So, if I can leave you with one more question; how would you describe the kind of leadership that makes you uncomfortable?

References

 Abdullah, S. N., Ismail, K. N. I. K., & Nachum, L. (2016). Does having women on boards create value? The impact of societal perceptions and corporate governance in emerging markets. Strategic Management Journal, 37(3), 466–476. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.2352

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203499627

Diversity Works. (2019). New Zealand Workplace Diversity Survey 2019.

Ford, J., & Harding, N. (2007). Move Over Management: We Are All Leaders Now. Management Learning, 38(5), 475–493. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350507607083203

Ford, J., & Harding, N. (2011). The impossibility of the ‘true self’ of authentic leadership. Leadership, 7(4), 463–479. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715011416894

Hoobler, J. M., Masterson, C. R., Nkomo, S. M., & Michel, E. J. (2018). The Business Case for Women Leaders: Meta-Analysis, Research Critique, and Path Forward. Journal of Management. 44(6).

Kelan, E. K. (2010). Gender Logic and (Un)doing Gender at Work. Gender, Work & Organization, 17(2), 174–194. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0432.2009.00459.x

McRobbie, A. (2009). The aftermath of feminism: Gender, culture and social change. Los Angeles ; London: SAGE.

Nicholson, H., & Carroll, B. (2013). Identity undoing and power relations in leadership development. Human Relations, 66(9), 1225–1248. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726712469548

Nixon, C, & Sinclair, A. (2017). Women Leading. Melbourne University Publishing.

Sinclair, A. (2004). Doing Leadership Differently: Gender, Power And Sexuality In A Changing Business Culture. Melbourne University Publishing.

Sinclair, A. (2005). Body Possibilities in Leadership. Leadership, 1(4), 387–406. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715005057231

Sterling, A. (2019, July 9). How would you describe leadership? LinkedIn Post. Retrieved July 16, 2019.

West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing Gender. Gender & Society, 1(2), 125–151. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243287001002002

 

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Supporting Mothers returning to work

The 2019 Workplace Diversity Survey (Diversity Works, 2019) reported a significant increase in gender as a diversity concern. But it also highlighted a lack of action in addressing gender issues in the workplace. I’m heartened by this because it means that what I’m researching and writing about is a topical concern for organisations. But the pervasive reluctance to address gender issues in the workforce keeps popping up in my research around mothers, and it’s the same theme; the systemic structural barriers to mother’s participation, deflecting attention from the real issues by packaging exit as individual choice. What do we do about it? Is there hope?

I spent the better part of last week immersed in brain based coaching techniques, in a course run by the Neuroleadership Institute. As humans we’re automatically primed to look for negatives, we scan for threats. But this thinking seldom propels us into doing anything differently. As I’d like my research to make some sort of impact, I’m experimenting with bringing forward thinking reframing into my writing on this subject. In this spirit, I’d like to offer three suggestions for taking some of the critical research I’ve been wading through and turning it into actionable steps.

My suggestions focus on how managers of people, organisational policy, and those who develop managers, can support mothers returning to work – so mothers can fulfill their potential and make a meaningful contribution. These suggestions could go for how dads are treated too.

Suggestions on how to support mothers returning to work:

One:  Regularly check in how they’re coping. Not just how they’re progressing with work goals, but how they’re FEELING in their transition back to work. Give specific time and attention to this.

Here’s an idea of how you could frame this up:

‘I just want to check in how you’re getting on. I know, from being a parent myself, it can be really hard coming back to work. I want you to know that you can talk to me, and that what you say within this room stays here. If you want to talk about what’s going on at home, I’d like you to be comfortable doing that. Let’s set aside 30mins every week/two weeks* for the next few months to check in how you’re going and ensure you have the support and resources you need in transitioning back to work. Would that work for you?’

The research tells us that the inability to reconcile the competing demands, and contradictory identities, of work and home is a significant factor in mothers leaving work. Making space to talk about it, names it, claims it, and tames it. Meaning that understanding what is going on in the individual’s circumstances opens up an opportunity to put in place resources and support before that person feels that their only option is to leave.

* whatever time and frequency seems appropriate. The important thing is making sure you’re giving it the airtime and focus.  

Two: No matter how progressive you think you are, check your unconscious biases. A culmination of little exclusionary acts, that seem to make logical and economic sense at the time, consistently come up in the research as reinforcing the normative discrimination against mothers.

I’ve been playing around with IF/THEN statements for checking and refocusing unconscious and habitual behaviours and they’re worth giving a go here. Try these:

  • IF you are leaving someone out of training or development because they’re about to go on maternity leave, THEN talk to them about still including them before they go.

Soon-to-be mothers are often overlooked for development because they’re taking time out of work and there’s uncertainty over whether they’ll return. But it leaves mothers feeling undervalued, compounding reasons for not returning.

Show that you still value them and commit to the long-term of your investment.

  • IF you are hiring someone, promoting, or giving a pay rise within your team THEN be very transparent about the reasons for the hire, promotion, or pay-rise.

Particularly when you have a team member on maternity leave, just returned or who has flexible/part-time work arrangements because of caregiving responsibilities. Being transparent, could include giving everyone in the team the opportunity to be considered (even the person on maternity leave), running a process, and communicating the decision with a rationale based on skills and attributes required for the role.

Often why people are hired, promoted, rewarded and recognised is informed by unconscious subtexts around the ‘ideal’ worker – someone who can demonstrate an ‘all in’ commitment to work. These are practices that disadvantage mothers.

Assume instead that the mums working for you also want to make a contribution by doing challenging and stimulating work.

  • IF you are giving interesting/challenging work to your full-time workers THEN challenge yourself on whether your part-timers/flexible workers might be equally committed and capable.

Having interesting work dry up and doing less responsible duties are more reasons mothers leave work – it’s the dream of intellectual stimulation unfulfilled.

You might have to be a bit more creative about how this work gets done. But it could be a great conversation starter about different sorts of work practices that deliver results. And it could be a great thing for the rest of your team too.

Three: Critically examine what gets rewarded and recognised. Because what keeps coming up in the research are the systems and structures, built around traditionally male lives, that value long-hours, presenteeism, 24/7 availability and a higher monetary reward for quantifiable outcomes over soft skills. Most part-timers are women and more women are in roles associated with caring responsibilities. They’re generally lower paid – a factor in decision-making about who takes on the majority of child-care.

Rather than make suggestions here, I’d like to pose a couple of questions:

  • Is your team recognised and rewarded on outcomes or hours?
  • Are your part-timers delivering the same outcomes you could reasonably expect from your full-timers? Are they being paid the same?

In conclusion

These suggestions revolve around ensuring mothers are heard, supported and valued in the workplace. The first two are within the immediate control of managers and could even be quick wins. The third suggestion could be a quick win but also addresses organisational wide policies on what gets rewarded and recognised.

I’d like to invite any mums (or dads) reading this to comment on what their experiences have been. What did your organisation do that helped you transition back to work after parental leave? What do you wish you had that would have helped you contribute your full potential as a primary caregiver at work?

 

References

Diversity Works New Zealand, (2019). New Zealand Diversity Survey 2019. Retrieved from: https://diversityworksnz.org.nz/media/3543/0419-diversity-survey-hr.pdf  Retrieved 19th June 2019.