He’s a senior leader in a hospital, who has long seen himself as an advocate for equality for his female colleagues. But in the past few years, he’s faced a few instances where women he works with have been offended by exchanges with him.
While there is much talk about gender equity at the organizational level, there’s still a lot of discomfort around how it actually plays out interpersonally at work. Host Muriel Wilkins coaches this leader toward a stronger understanding of his own assumptions and how he can manage across differences.
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MURIEL WILKINS: I’m Muriel Wilkins and this is Coaching Real Leaders, part of the HBR Presents Network. I’m a long-time executive coach who works with highly successful leaders who’ve hit a bump in the road. My job is to help them get over that bump by clarifying their goals and figuring out a way to reach them, so that hopefully they can lead with a little more ease. I typically work with clients over the course of several months, but on this show, we have a one time coaching meeting focusing on a specific leadership challenge they’re facing.
MURIEL WILKINS: Today’s guest is someone we’ll call “Nick,” to protect his confidentiality. He’s a leader in the medical field and has been a hospital chief for over a decade. It’s a role that involves a lot of people management over and beyond his clinical responsibilities. He’s viewed himself as someone who’s pretty good at interpersonal relations. It’s something he’s gotten positive feedback on in the past. But more recently, he’s been surprised by how some of his interactions with female colleagues have gone. And while he’s considered himself a supporter of gender equity, he now wonders if he’s part of the issue, and even more so, what he can do about it.
NICK: But gender equity is very good in our hospital, including amongst leaders. And I see myself interacting with women in different positions in my own department, in my own group, and I want to see how to make that better because at least two instances sort of caused me to rethink how I’m thinking about my interactions and whether I’m sensitive enough to understanding the reactions or what I say, am I listening enough? Should I be listening differently to a man and a woman?
MURIEL WILKINS: In the last few years, issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion have risen even more to the forefront, making it hard for leaders to ignore. And while there’s much talk about how to deal with gender equity at an organizational level, there’s still a lot of discomfort in talking about how it plays out interpersonally between men and women at work. It’s not an easy thing to come forward with an issue like this, and it’s certainly not one that can be wrapped up in a pretty bow in one coaching session. But it’s one we wanted to tackle because it’s a challenge that honestly probably a lot of men face. They’re telling themselves. “I feel like I’m walking on eggshells. Am I interacting with women colleagues in the right way? Am I being sensitive enough or overly sensitive?” Before diving into the specifics of Nick’s current situation. I wanted to hear what he thinks makes him an effective leader.
NICK: I think I get along with people very well. Generally people trust me and I think that has helped a lot.
MURIEL WILKINS: And why do they trust you?
NICK: I really don’t know [laughter].
MURIEL WILKINS: They just do.
NICK: I think maybe I keep things simple and straightforward. I don’t try to complicate stuff. I work almost 50 percent clinically in the forefront so whatever I’m asking them to do I do myself. So the time actually I overwork so that I do enough clinical work because I know that I cannot do this forever. It takes a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and I’m very conscious of the fact that I lead a team of professionals who are experts in their own rights and I’m not the one to boss over them, I’m the one to sort of shepherd them, guide them, fight for them, advocate for them. We have four divisions in our department, the divisional chiefs report to me. Then there are other things that I do for the hospital, like you have to sit on committees. Equity, diversity and inclusion is something very new that we’ve started, so started to do that more formally within the department.
MURIEL WILKINS: First of all, it sounds like you have a lot on your plate, right? So when you look at sort of the portfolio of responsibilities that you have in your leadership role, what are the areas that you are drawn to and then what are the areas where you do them but with a little less affection?
NICK: Teaching comes very naturally to me. Doing clinical work comes naturally because that’s what we trained for all of our life, right, as a doctor. Interacting with people is great fun, it’s amazing to listen to people’s stories. And often what you see on the surface is not what it is. What I find really challenging in this role, taking care of finances. The other aspect which is difficult is change management, like for everyone else. I’ve be successful in some divisions within my department to bring about change and some not so much. So those are some challenges, yeah.
MURIEL WILKINS: So currently, so we’re sitting here having this conversation, what do you see as the leadership challenge that you’re facing right now? What brought you here today?
NICK: I found that I had three interactions with women in my department, whom I worked for many years, where they got very upset at me. And I realized that, “Hey, there’s something wrong that I’m doing over here, it’s like maybe I could be completely wrong over here.” And I’m trying to think what the worth/cost is. So, first of all, it could be the way I said it and did it. I think in one instance, I’m pretty sure about that because I reached out to my HR colleague who’s a woman and who has good insight into human relations and human resources and stuff like that. The other two instances are a little bit surprised at the reaction, I didn’t expect that, and I said maybe I’m doing something wrong over here. We are not sensitive enough. I’m doing in my old style, my old way, where maybe the sensitivity has to be different. The #MeToo movement has changed a lot, right, that’s my perception and also the stress of COVID. There’s a lot of personal stressors that people have felt. This is a question I even asked him about the VP of my organization, she’s very experienced, she’s phenomenal. So I asked her once that when I give feedback to people who report up to me, do I have to change it based on gender or race and other things?” And she said, “Well, that’s a tough one. I don’t know how to answer that,” and she said she’ll think about it and get back to me.
MURIEL WILKINS: Very, very smart person. So I just want to make sure that I sort of understand the situation and the circumstance that you’re in and then the key question that you have, right? So it sounds like what’s happened is you’ve had some circumstances, more recently, so it doesn’t sound like this has happened in the past, it’s been recent?
NICK: This is over the last one and a half years.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. And it sounds like what’s happened is you have shared some feedback or shared some news with female colleagues and you were surprised by the way that they responded to you and that you found that they got upset with you. And so your question is, do you need to change the way that you communicate with or approach your female colleagues as you move forward?
NICK: That’s correct. So in two instances, it was feedback. And one instance was a conversation based on other issues.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. All right, and before we dive into some of those situations, just so I can get a little bit of color, why is this important to you right now? Why is this even a question that you want to answer for yourself?
NICK: Because I pride myself on having considered gender equity all my life. My mother was very educated, and we were not well off in the beginning but even in those years in the ’50s, she had a Bachelor of Arts Degree so she was very well educated. And then I consider my wife to be a phenomenal person who brings a lot to the table. In fact, she’s of immense help to me in whatever I do, and it sort of shook me up a little bit when I had those reactions.
MURIEL WILKINS: And it shook it up in what way? What was shook?
NICK: I thought I was doing something wrong, which I’m sure that there is a different way to approach things, which I don’t know what exactly wrong I was doing.
MURIEL WILKINS: Let’s take a pause here. While Nick was blindsided by how his interactions with his female colleagues played out, he’s taking a very important step and putting the focus of this discussion on him, and thereby owning his part. Of course, every interaction has two sides to the story. And most times people expend their energy on blaming the other person. “Why did she get emotional? Why did she take it the wrong way?” Versus turning the lens on themselves. So the fact that Nick is willing to do this is key in being able to eventually get to strategies. Another critical point here is why he wants to address the issue? What’s his motivation? If he’s simply doing it because he’s checking the box, his actions will not be genuine or sustainable. But in his case, Nick’s motivation lies deeper than that in his sense of purpose. Leaders have to realize that if they truly want to move the needle on equity issues, they have to find a purpose in it, rather than approaching it as an HR requirement. So with these things in place for Nick, he was now ready to unpack this challenge some more. But before we did that, I invited him to approach it with a bit of a different mindset.
MURIEL WILKINS: So before we dive in, I want to sort of offer something to you as we have this conversation, okay? Your colleague, who you went to and asked for some suggestions and she said, “Oh, that’s a tough one. Let me stop and think about it.” And I said, “Smart person to respond that way.” It is tough, and I think maybe what I’ll offer is just a gentle suggestion that you don’t look at this for yourself as right or wrong. Can you shift from this assessment that you have had of yourself around, “I am good at dealing with women,” right, which I think is what your belief has been, and now something has shook that up, to I am always learning on how to deal with other people, in this case, female colleagues? Many times we get shook up in how people respond to us, particularly when something has worked for us for so long because we actually think we’re good at it. There is no good, right? You’re just continuously learning. And I think this is an area that, obviously, you’re going to continue to grow on and hopefully you’ll learn something out of this conversation. So just that slight shift, if you can move away from right or wrong way. And more, “what do I still need to learn?”
NICK: So let me tell you the one where I think I have a little bit insight. So one of our professionals, who is a very high achiever, very organized, really in the top 10th percentile of such people in the world. One day, came to me and said that, “I want to do this and this project,” she needed time for that, like half a day a week, plus she’s going to use our own time, one day in the weekend. It was going to take about a year for her to do that. We talked about it a little bit, and then I sort of suggested that, “You are very busy, you have achieved a lot. I’m not sure that you really need to do this because a lot of your personal time into this. Though I don’t want to prevent you from doing it, I want you to consider whether this really is something you want to do.” So the person was pretty insistent that this is what they want to do and I said, “Are you sure because it might impact your family life.” And that caused a reaction which was pretty intense. The person got very upset at me and started giving examples of how organized a person, is, what time they come in, how they never miss anything at school or PTA, and stuff like that. So I obviously backed up and I said, “Listen, that was my opinion but if you want to do it, go ahead and do it and we will support you.” We did support it in little bit financially and also in terms of giving time and stuff like that.
MURIEL WILKINS: What part blindsided you there?
NICK: She got really upset saying that, “You don’t know how organized I am, how I can manage things, and how I do things,” and this and that.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, so what surprised you about that?
NICK: I thought I was really trying to help her or prevent her from overworking herself. But contrary to that, she got upset at me I thought and so that was what surprised me that I was reaching out for her, but she didn’t get that. I was judgmental and saying that she could not do this and it will impact her family. So that is what caused the problem.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, so I’d like to deconstruct this a little bit because the first thing that I picked up on what you shared is you were surprised by her reaction, and the surprise was that she got upset when what you were trying to do was actually be supportive, okay? And so the surprise reaction was her being upset. Now, whenever we’re surprised by somebody else’s reaction, it’s because we have an expectation that they will react a different way, okay? That literally is the difference between being surprised and not being surprised. So what did you think she was going to do by your intent on being supportive?
NICK: I thought she would reconsider her plan because it was going to be very intensely busy for her for the next one year or so.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. And so you thought she would reconsider it and you described what actually happened is her being upset. So what adjectives would you use to describe how you would have thought she responded?
NICK: I was expecting her to be calm and composed about it and to explain to me why she would still want to do it or how she would manage the time or give up something else. That’s what I was expecting.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, understood. So what I want you to hold on there is there’s emotions that you’re expecting or not expecting on both ends, in terms of what you responded. And in actuality, part of you triggered an emotion in her, but she also owns her own emotion and you can’t control it. So you’re certainly contributing to how she reacted, but she also owns a part of it. So what we’re going to focus on is what is the part that you’re contributing. And there’s also this piece of can you really control somebody else’s response?
NICK: Probably not. Or not always.
MURIEL WILKINS: Probably not. You certainly can’t control it. I mean, look, we have a hard enough time controlling our own emotional reactions, how the heck are we going to control somebody else’s emotional reactions, right? So you can try to influence it, right? You can try to come in with the right energy and intentions that hopefully will result in the person being calm and composed, as you said. But it’s not all in your hands, okay? So the question is, how do you approach, in this situation, the conversation in a way that increases the chances of her responding in a more calm and composed way? And does that have anything to do, right, that’s the underlying question, does that have anything to do with her gender? So that’s the first part. The second part is you said it seemed like what she got upset about was your assertion around this impacting her work-life balance, right? When she went through that checklist, what do you think she was trying to communicate to you?
NICK: That she really, really wanted to do this.
MURIEL WILKINS: That she really wanted to do, why? Let’s sort of peel back the onion. Because why?
NICK: She wanted to climb the ladder.
MURIEL WILKINS: She wanted to climb the ladder, and what did she has to show for her ability to climb the ladder?
NICK: I thought she had done quite a lot already to climb the ladder without doing this.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, when you sort of brought up the issue, it sounds—nd again, she’s not here for me to talk to you so I don’t know—but it sounded like she went back to, but look at everything that I’ve done, right? Look at all the effort that I put in. And you were focused on the goal. “Is it even possible for you to do that? Do you really want that goal?” Without acknowledging the effort that she had already put into place, okay? I will offer research that’s been done and resources around gender differences and how to talk to gender differences, with the caveat that it can lead to generalizations, right? So while we can talk about it from a gender standpoint, I want to be cautious of not making generalizations, okay? There was a book written awhile back by I don’t remember exactly the name of the book. I can get it to you but the authors were John Gray and Barbara Annis, I believe they’re the ones who wrote, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and then they wrote a book that was more focused on the workplace, okay? And one of the things that came up in their research, so they had done a ton of research around what is the difference in communication that happens between males and females in the workplace? One of the differences and they coined us having lack of gender intelligence, is that men tend to prioritize and sequence their work in their decisions and focus based on the results, rather than the efforts to get there. While women do care about the goal, right, clearly as your colleague did, but they also care very much about the effort and the process of reaching them. And so what this then translates into is how males and females in the workplace tend to feel appreciated. Males will tend to feel appreciated when their accomplishments are acknowledged, while women also want their efforts to be appreciated on the way to getting the goal.
NICK: Very interesting.
MURIEL WILKINS: So when I share that difference, how you translate that into the situation that you face with this particular colleague?
NICK: Now that I think about, it makes a lot of sense that. I should have spent some time acknowledging all the efforts that she’s put into whatever she has done and what she is going to do before having made any suggestions.
MURIEL WILKINS: And in order to acknowledge, what you need to do?
NICK: I need to rephrase and restate the achievements. I acknowledge that she put a lot of time effort in how successful she has been and give some specific examples of success to show that I really care about the efforts that she has put in, and even the results that she’s achieved there.
MURIEL WILKINS: Right. And I think even a step before being able to acknowledge anyone around their efforts is your ability to listen to what their efforts have been, okay? This is the