How I Teach Men to Work with Women

Will Marré

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There is a growing recognition that considering a large number of diverse ideas will usually lead to better solutions than considering a small number of similar ideas. In problem-solving, the model is divergence precedes convergence. That seems simple enough. But it turns out that relatively few people are good at actually listening to different opinions and ideas. Therefore I find myself having to train leaders a paint-by-numbers way of promoting cognitive diversity and honest consideration of new ways of thinking. I actually teach them a very simple behavioral routine so they can get out of their own way.



Of course, I have found most men to be much worse at tolerating different ideas than most women. There are lots of reasons for this. Firstly, testosterone-soaked brains are impatient. That's not a metaphor. It seems that testosterone is such a stimulant for aggressive action that it makes high-speed decisions emotionally thrilling. So decisiveness triggers squirts of dopamine that generates a false sense of confidence. Evidence from Talent Smart Research is very clear that the more senior a person is the more likely they are to value decisiveness . . . especially their own.

But aggressive decisiveness in our complex world is a consistent path to failure. It nearly always causes rework, budget overruns and just plain lots of stupid stuff. I find myself fighting this kind of thinking every day I work with powerful executives. Crazy Making is a term psychologists frequently use to describe people who persistently cause the very problems that they complain about.

My job is a hold up a mirror. I tell executives that if you have been working with a team you have chosen for six months what that team is producing is nearly a complete reflection of your leadership effectiveness. So if you don't like the results you're team is currently getting, look in the mirror.

On the other hand the most common complaint I hear from team members is that their leader is not interested in listening to their ideas, concerns or suggestions if it is contrary to the leader's locked-in viewpoint. This, of course, kills participation and fosters the virus of undiscussed contingencies and dependencies that permeate modern organizations. After a while, people simply stop bringing up contrary evidence or data that ought to be considered before more time and money is flushed down the corporate toilet.

When I work with executives who want to improve results and truly engage the creative minds and knowledge of the people they lead I've gotten the best results by asking them to follow this simple formula.

ASK, ACKNOWLEDGE, AFFIRM

1. Always ASK first

People with power tend to give their opinion first. They do this to take control of the ensuing discussion. But smart people realize that what's important to their success is not stating what they do know, but rather learning what they don't know. Of course, the leader has to establish the topic and the goal but their next act should be to ask for everybody's best ideas and knowledge about the topic. This immediately makes people feel valued and draws out their thoughtful contributions.

2. ACKNOWLEDGE

How often have you made a suggestion in a meeting only to have it totally ignored? This is probably the most common complaint I hear from women in technology companies. They literally feel unheard, like maybe their voice is not actually audible. What I ask leaders to do is to verbally acknowledge the comment and speak the persons' name. So a leader might say "Does everybody hear what Beth is saying? We are continuing to fall behind our schedule because our engineers are being pulled off onto other projects. Anything else Beth?" Acknowledging someone by name as you acknowledge their message is an example to an entire group that you value their input and that you are ready to listen deeply to everyone's viewpoint and data before a decision is made. This creates the ultimate confidence in a leader.

3. AFFIRM

Sincere affirmation is simply stating gratitude for someone taking the time and committing their energy to make an intelligent comment or suggestion. So when the leader says, "Thanks, Beth, I appreciate you coming prepared with the latest data." How do you think Beth feels about coming to the next meeting equally prepared? You also see how it sends a message to every other team member that your work matters.

When people know that their work does matter and that their voice is heard their commitment to success skyrockets. I've seen this with my own eyes. I have helped some of the crustiest, Neanderthal leaders without a trace of social intelligence recharge massive departments of discouraged employees by simply following this simple formula.

This isn't really new news. The effectiveness of Ask, Acknowledge and Affirm is as old as Alexander the Great. It's the way he treated his battle commanders and his soldiers. Yet today they're very few leaders who are consistently great. But that must change.

What I explain to men in technology companies is that you will never become an attractive place for women to work until you treat women differently than you do today. Of course, pay equity is essential. And an equal opportunity for advancement should be unquestioned. But solving those problems won't solve the problem of women becoming exhausted and discouraged from a work culture that makes them invisible, or worse, objects.

The real problem is how they define the problem.

The problem is that most tech companies have no idea about how to draw out the talent from their female workforce on a daily basis. The issue is not about doing the right thing. The issue is about doing the smart thing. Companies cannot be competitive if they do not foster the full engagement and the cognitive diversity of women and other holistic thinkers every day.

When women become valued for their distinct, scientifically validated gender strengths of what MIT researchers call thinking versatility and universal inclusiveness, businesses will become more innovative, competitive and profitable. We know because researchers at Fortune Magazine have discovered that the 51 companies of the Fortune 1000 that are led by women CEOs are 37% more profitable than the average of a male-lead company.

So, come on dudes, it's not that hard . . . Ask, Acknowledge, Affirm. Make it a habit.

(I bet your mother already taught you to do this when you were growing up.)

Will

P.S. If you're a women who aspires to be a force for positive change in the world, in your career and in your life, please, join me at one of our upcoming SMART Power Academies in the SF Bay Area or La Jolla, CA. Click here to learn more and sign up. The first 30 will be guaranteed seats.

WITI and Will Marré have partnered together to create new cutting edge transformational programs for corporations. For more information about how these programs can benefit your company, please contact WITI at 818 788-9484 or email training@corp.witi.com.

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