Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Turkey Day Vow: Interrupt the Interruptions

I had just interviewed a fascinating consultant, Dr. Jeannie Kahwajy, who runs Effective Interactions helping management teams communicate more productively. She points out how much more effective we all are at work if we invite the contribution of everyone in the room -- even those who have a hard time being heard. She talks about how a guy in her MBA class kept getting run over by louder men in her section. So one day, after the guy got interrupted again, Jeannie smiled at him and said “I would really like to hear what you have to say--will you please continue?"

Jeannie says that what’s often seen as a woman’s failure to speak up is really a failure to keep talking -- when cut off by someone else in the room. And that everyone benefits when we intercept those interruptions.

“If I let a man interrupt another woman, I reinforce the view that ‘women are supposed to be interrupted,’ ” says Kahwajy. “All it takes is one supporter to stop an interruption. And it’s easier for me to support you than myself—with a positive tone and an open and receptive mind. Every time I do that, I protect my own values.”

So there I was sitting at the dinner table with my family, enjoying the holiday and listening to my mother tell us about a book she’d just read. She was giving us lot of details -- a custom among my kin, men and women alike though I may be the worst offender.

“So what I think is really important,” broke in one of my male relatives (no name, he’s really a nice guy). “Hmm,” I thought while picking up my spoon and wrapping it against a wine glass. “Hey, I would like to hear mom out -- will you hang in there?” I told him. He looked a bit surprised but settled back in his chair. My mom looked even more surprised -- and then happily resumed her story.

I was thrilled - Jeannie was right -- it’s not so hard to protect your values. On a roll, a few months later, some friends invited us for dinner and it seemed to me that every time the wife started to hold forth on something, her husband became impatient and re-directed the conversation. She seemed to accept this and would then remain quiet for a while.

“Wow, it’s like my mom!” I thought. So when it happened again, at the risk of offending Miss Manners (and our host), I clinked my glass, smiled sweetly at him, and said, “you know I’m really interested in what Ann has to say.” Ann’s husband shrugged (he’s also a nice guy). And my husband, to his credit, laughed. Steve always knows what I’m up to and generally has a fine sense of humor about my crusades ... though slightly less when I observe that he’s the one who is interrupting me.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. If you feel inspired to try out Jeannie’s advice, please let us know on our blog how this “tradition” worked for you.

By Sharon Meers

Friday, November 20, 2009

Men and women at work: Can We Talk? (Fortune)

Check out my guest posting in Fortune this week.
Blue shirt photo low resolution

Photo courtesy of Vince Tarry

Do men resent powerful women?

One of the most intriguing statistics in “A Woman’s Nation,” the recently released survey by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, is this: 69% of women think men resent women who have more power than they do. Only 49% of men agree.

Who knows who’s right. What we know for sure is that men and women can’t agree about power–and aren’t very comfortable talking candidly about it.

To research Getting to 50/50, the book I wrote with Joanna Strober, we found that fear of candid talk is the biggest logjam blocking the progress of women in the workplace. For one thing, men shy away from giving women honest feedback. One male CEO of a tech start-up told us: “Every senior male executive I know has been threatened with discrimination charges regardless of the goodness of their track record.” He added, “I’ve seen it make cynics out of a lot of men who started out very differently.”

All of us–men and women alike–contribute to this problem. In our politically correct workplaces, discussing male/female differences has become so taboo that the topic is broached only in heated moments, when colleagues let loose their true opinions about gender and power.

It’s a messy management issue. HR lawyers say that employers ask how to avoid suits when their priority should be retaining and promoting women, with the help of honest dialogue about everything from performance issues to maternity leaves.

But too often, men cower at giving feedback to female subordinates. That CEO of the tech start-up confessed that when he was at a big media company, his peers advised him to leave his office door open during reviews of female employees–and best to stay within earshot of his assistant so he’d have a witness if the employee made a complaint. “How much candor can you offer with your door open?” he asked me rhetorically, with understandable exasperation.

Moreover, lots of line managers keep women out of their networks (and even avoid going out to lunch with them) because it just doesn’t feel comfortable. Many managers steer clear of difficult conversations. Don’t be too hard on the guys: They’ve never been told how to engage the right way.

Rod Kramer, a professor and management expert at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, believes that men’s discomfort relates to a common insecurity: “Men often seem to think (heroically) that they should be masters at the conversation–that they should know the ‘right’ things to say.” His advice to men and women: “Be more curious about each other and their experiences. Just ask good leading questions–and invite questions in return.”

Meanwhile, women’s tendency to be super-serious (as men perceive them, at least) compounds the workplace dysfunction. “Women can make anything a chore,” a former Microsoft (MSFT) executive told me. “They’re too serious and don’t seem to understand that work is a game.”

What should women do? One of our interviewees, Larry, a partner in a national architecture firm, told us about a woman who blew up over her male colleagues’ risqué pin-ups and jocular behavior; she complained to HR and quit. Larry wishes that she had confronted the guys who offended her: “Tell guys to their face,” he says, advising women in general. “Say, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ And be funny about it. You have to do it in a way so that guys don’t feel threatened, but you are making your point.”

In the stories we heard, “right” and “wrong” were rarely obvious. But the need for a male/female lingua franca was clear.

Some wise employers are getting a jump on inventing this new language.

Deloitte, for one, has moved aggressively to bring male and female executives together to discuss questions like “Would you want your daughter to work for a company that has lower expectations for women?” Open dialogue and better insight into what women need to be successful has helped Deloitte command a lead among professional services firms in utilizing female talent.

The University of Michigan has also made strides. With backing from the National Science Foundation, the University enlisted male professors to comb research on implicit gender attitudes. For example, most people will select a resume with a male name over one with a female name, even when the resumes are identical. Professors turned their survey into a workshop and shared their insights with the University’s hiring committees. Female science hires have since risen dramatically.

It may be a long while ’til we reach 50/50. But understanding the issues and learning to understand each other is a good start.

Sharon Meers is the co-author of Getting to 50/50 and a former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs (GS).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Free Speech: Trade Venus/Mars for Common Ground

I bike downhill with my brakes on. Early in my career, my firm hosted a day at a formula car racing school. Starting #2 in the line up, I was soon so far behind I found myself alone -- until, in my rearview mirror, I saw all the other cars coming up behind to lap me (turns out I was supposed to accelerate beyond 80 mph).

While embarrassed for myself, I was thrilled that the only other woman at the race track (a fifty-something working-mom lawyer) made a fine show of female machismo -- she was one of the first to pass me. I fit the stereotype of the cautious female but I have plenty of women friends who jump out of planes and hang from cliffs. I’ve attributed my own whimpiness to environment (growing up in an uncoordinated body with protective parents). So I’ve never bought in to the idea that my physical risk-aversion is a function of my sex.

But this week, I was reminded how it often looks like women are too cautious in areas that are far more important. And that we need to push ourselves to look for environmental factors that can free women to take the risks they need to.

Speaking up in class gets you better grades - but there’s still a view that women don’t say as much as their male peers, even in competitive business schools. “How can this still be?” we asked a group of female students. They offered a thought-provoking reply: The real problem is male B.S. - guys who are happy to take up air time without much basis for their point of view.

I was talking to a political consultant who told me a variant of the same thing. That editorial editors around the country complain that if they ask a female expert to write about breaking news, they often get this response: “Well, I’m not sure how much I know about that, I’ll need a week to get the facts together.” Call a man with the same expertise and you get an op-ed on your desk in the AM.

Journalist Katie Orenstein discovered that women send in only10% of the opinion pieces submitted to newspapers. She founded the Op-Ed Project -- to help more women feel entitled to speak out and engage in the public debate. A big part of her magic is helping women see that we are expert enough (by male standards) to say a lot more than we are saying. Her training sessions around the country attract female academics and executives alike and have generated hundreds more female op-eds.

How much precision is good? We have a problem because social norm encourage men and women to do different things. In rough terms, we ask men to “be a man about it” and step into the fray. We raise women to be “good girls” and have all the details pinned down. I once worked with a guy who was happy to walk into meetings unable to account for hundreds of millions of dollars -- since we were talking about billions, he’d say his numbers were “directionally correct” and was quite comfortable with that. I’ve also worked with clever women who dutifully read out every statistic to the 2nd decimal place. As we discussed in Getting to 5050, we have problem communicating a single boy/girl standard of what’s OK.

At a recent dinner, a self-impressed man (we’ll call him Hank) was holding forth, peppering his assertions with numbers. A few people questioned Hank’s argument and were brushed aside with more “facts”. Smelling a rat, another man asked, “Hank, did you know that 73.64% of statistics are made up?”

If we can stop over-focusing on gender difference, if we can drop the boy-versus-girl superiority contests, we’ll better see what really matters: That we can change environmental factors that cause both sexes to underperform. By getting on the same page, men and women can do a lot to help talented voices to speak up -- and blowhards to pipe down.

By Sharon Meers

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Free Yourself from 24/7 - Harvard Business Review Shows the Way

My husband escaped the cult of 24/7 early -- the night he saw his boss tip-toe out of the office (afraid he’d be seen as a slacker for leaving early on his kid’s birthday.)

Good process, investing each minute well. Those things create more value than dutifully staying late, my husband explained years later. He had little patience for my more standard view -- that working long hours and being on-call were just part of having a good job.

The latest Harvard Business Review says I was wrong and my husband is right -- that normal “always on” work culture produces inferior results.

Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow ran experiments at Boston Consulting Group over four years showing this: Teams that got predictable time off produced more value for clients compared to standard teams who were “always on.”

BCG - the management consulting giant - ran these time-use tests on real-time assignments to see if there was a way to maintain excellence while giving employees predictable and required time off every week. In one experiment, a BCG team mandated that each consultant (on an important project with a new client) work only 4 days a week -- each teammate sat out one standard workday while the project proceeded smoothly without him/her. In others, consultants were required to unplug and abstain from work (no email, no cell phone) after 6pm one evening per week.

Clients were happy with results and scores of employee development, communication, job satisfaction -- and, oh, work/life balance - all jumped in a statistically significant way.

How could this be?

It turns out that if you know you’re required to switch off at 6 on Tuesday, you’ll think much harder about a lot of things. Like how to do what’s essential before that time, how to triage things that are less important, how to communicate to your colleagues what they need to know so you can hand off when you switch off.

Teamwork -- sharing and passing information -- also improves by necessity. Forced to communicate about what they were doing and how they were doing it, the consultants found process improvements, anticipated problems, and produced better results for clients.

The article, “Making Time Off Predictable--and Required”, is $6.50 on the HBR website and is sure to create lively conversation at the office. And for more on what we can each do in our own lives, check out our BusinessWeek piece "How to Excel at Your Job and Be Home for Dinner".

By Sharon Meers