A while back, I wrote a post on LinkedIn asking whether the women on teams are leaning in.  Read it here.

I got one comment with a bit of a “blame the victim” message.  I didn’t write to women to blame them, I wrote to women because I feel passionately about helping them add more value on their teams and because I see so much opportunity for organizations to benefit from a more effective contribution from women.

But it was a fair comment. I spend more time with teams dominated by men.  What would I say to them? Well, I’d say this…

While the women on many teams are leaning back, you men are leaning in so far that you’re dominating the conversation, making interactions adversarial, and stifling the diversity of thought. You gotta’ stop!  Lean out a little, fellas. Demanding consumers, disruptive competitors, and matrixed structures require agile, collaborative processes that harness diversity of thought rather than choke it.  It’s time to change your game boys.

Rule #1: Start With a Positive Assumption

In my book, You First: Inspire your team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, I describe how the assumptions you make about your team members can destroy your team dynamic without you even opening your mouth. (You always knew you got into trouble without even opening your mouth, didn’t you? “Whaaat, I didn’t SAY anything!)  Sad thing is that you know you get in trouble, but you’re still clueless about why.

It’s because the minute (actually, the nanosecond) you decide that your teammate isn’t credible, isn’t reliable, isn’t trustworthy, your body language closes and you signal that you’re not buying what they are selling.  Without a word of disagreement, your dismissal is picked up both by the target and by almost everyone else around the table. Yup, you can beat someone up while moving nothing more than your eyebrows.

Ask yourself – do you…

  1. Dismiss ideas that come from people with less expertise or experience (or even just people whose expertise and experience is different than yours);
  2. Shut down ideas that don’t immediately resonate with you and drive toward action;
  3. Write off people who are focused on different goals than you or trying to achieve the same goals in a different way?

These knee-jerk reactions are all very primal: We have in groups and out groups, friends and foes.  But in the rapidly changing world, sticking to the ideas and people you are comfortable with can be a fast path to extinction.  Becoming far more self-aware of these biases will be very important to your continued relevance.

It’s time to start with a positive assumption—open yourself to ideas and people that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Be one of the amazing men who combine their own expertise with other people’s fresh new ideas to grow and innovate. Here’s how:

  1. Tune in to your reactions.  Where do you notice yourself tuning out? Who on your team do you fail to make eye contact with? When do you open up to an idea and when do you close down? What message is your body language conveying?
  2. Be curious. When you catch yourself shutting down and making negative assumptions about the value of an idea, replace your cynicism with a question. How could that person see the world so differently than I do? What can I learn from their perspective? Which of my assumptions are outdated and holding me back? What do I need to let go of? As Liz Wiseman says “How is what I know getting in the way of what I need to learn?”
  3. Don’t be afraid to struggle.  It’s natural to respond to a foreign idea by trying to bring it back to something you know and understand. We are wired to like a predictable, rational world and to be uncomfortable with novel or disconfirming situations.  But try to hang out in discomfort and uncertainty for a while. Keep struggling with the idea until you have a new insight.

Counteract the assumptions in your head and take each idea on its merits, regardless of its source.

Rule #2: Support the Weaker Members

Many male-dominated teams I meet have a wolf pack feel to them.  There is the alpha (usually the leader), the majority of the pack, and then there are a few weak members who are struggling to keep up.  From the front of the room, I can see team members checking in with the alpha and with the pack to see who they perceive as weak; to figure out who can be dismissed. Once the alpha demotes someone, the team almost completely discounts and discards them—leaving them for dead. Then they have no chance of success. It’s brutal to watch.

Ask yourself – do you…..

  1. Pay attention to who is losing clout and influence and weigh their contributions less?
  2. Shut down unpopular voices by interrupting, dismissing, or being sarcastic?
  3. Give your time, attention and support to people who already have credibility, rather than those trying to build it?

It’s possible that you could be the only one standing in the way of someone being shut out from adding value to the team.  Their novel, counter-intuitive, unpopular idea just might make all the difference for your business.  You decide whether that idea gets a fair hearing or whether it’s sloughed off with all the other “stupid ideas.”

  1. Find the underdogs. Your first task is to figure out which ideas, perspectives, and people tend to be excluded from your team’s thinking. Is it a certain function that gets ignored (e.g., software, manufacturing, compliance)? Is it a perspective that gets downplayed (e.g., organizers and process people, strategic thinkers, detail-oriented types)? Or is it the good old fashioned “not like me” factors that determine in-group and out-group (e.g., women, cultural minorities, people who don’t like talking about sports).
  2. Loan your credibility. If you have clout and influence as a member of the majority group, use it to give a boost to those who don’t. If someone can’t get a word in edgewise, give them your turn and invite them to contribute to the discussion. If you think something they said is valuable, call it out.
  3. Play offensive lineman. It’s going to be really difficult for someone with little clout or credibility to make headway in a discussion. That’s where you have a huge opportunity to help. As people start to pile on, you need to protect the idea (and the person) from attack. If someone dismisses the idea, bring it up again. If they make a nasty remark, ask them to give the idea a fair shake. Make sure they get the first down.

Your team is never going to keep up with the future if the only ideas you’re willing to hear are from the people who were successful in the past.  Introducing new ideas, promoting a little heresy, goring some sacred cows, they’re all good now and again.  If you’re too ensconced in the status quo to be the dissenting voice, hold the door open for someone who can be.

Rule #3: Embrace Productive Conflict

The stereotypic view of male conflict would be the aggressive approach with yelling and table pounding. I do see that kind of conflict when men’s emotions get the better of them and the testosterone kicks in.  But recently, I’ve actually seen even more serious issues with conflict avoidant men—particularly in very senior positions.  So my advice here requires you to self-diagnose as either a fight or a flight person in conflict.

Ask yourself – do you…

  1. Fight: “Go after” issues and drive right to the heart of the matter regardless of how people are impacted?
    Flight: Slowly, deliberately work away at a contentious issue so you don’t rock the boat?
  2. Fight: Criticize individuals in public forums, bringing everyone into the conflict in the name of accountability?
    Flight: Quietly discuss an issue behind closed doors with one person at a time always keeping yourself at the center so it doesn’t get heated?
  3. Fight: Raise your voice and make yourself physically intimidating (e.g., finger pointing, standing up, leaning in)
    Flight: Shrink away from conflict (e.g., drop eye contact, lower your voice, back away from the table)

Productive Conflict creates a two-way dialogue that is focused on improving ideas. Regardless of whether your course correction is to be less aggressive or to be more direct, here’s what you’re aiming for:

  1. Have conflict directly, but with low intensity. You need to think about conflict and uncomfortable discussions as part of your obligation to your team. Do not shy away from them and do not sugar coat the truth. At the same time, do not confuse directness with bluntness or brutality. Be direct about the issue, but don’t be too intense. Stop puffing out your chest and doing your Tarzan dance. Keep your tone constructive and leave some room for other people to participate in the conversation.
  2. Validate the Other Person. Ok gentlemen, you owe me for this one because it’s not only going to save your teams, it’s going to improve your relationships at home too. For one moment, don’t worry about pounding your opponent (and when I say opponent, I mean your teammate, your spouse, your family member) with your point of view. Instead, take a moment to validate their perspective by restating what you heard. “What I’m hearing from you is that we have a process for how to do this and we need to stick to it.” The minute you start with their truth instead of your own, you will completely change the nature of the discussion. When they feel heard, then add your own truth. “I need to have this plant up and running in 8 weeks and the current process takes 12. Can we figure out a plan that works for us both?”
  3. Go for the root cause. If you disagree with a proposed action, try to understand where the person is coming from. (This goes well with checking your assumptions.) Ask what problem your teammate is solving for. You’ll often find that your misalignment was because you were solving for different things. Once you know what you’re each trying to solve for, you’ll move much more quickly in finding a palatable way to achieve your goals.

While there are still a few of the old fashioned chest beating types around today, a new species of conflict avoidant males seems to be popping up.  Perhaps the latter are a reaction to the former, with men who are actively choosing a more civilized approach.  Sadly, neither the aggressive nor the passive is effective.  Strengthen your productive conflict muscles and we’ll all be better off.

The power on many teams is still firmly in the grasp of the men. But how many of the high profile organizational failures were the result of men in power shutting down ideas and people that might have saved them from themselves? We need a new generation of men who promote and harness diverse perspectives through effective collaboration.  Men who are more aware of their biases and assumptions. Men who open the discussion to new ways of thinking. Men who have conflict productively so it moves things forward rather than trapping their teams in the past.

You can’t change every man, but you can change yourself; and that will change everything.

Further Reading

Managing the Aggressor on your Team

How to work for an Abusive Leader

Tools to stop Passive-Aggressive Behaviour