Stay Balanced

January 18, 2016 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

There are a few terms that are front-and-centre these days around the workplace, with gender equity and cultural diversity often leading the pack. During a presentation a few months ago, I asked the group about the challenges they face on projects. One woman, from the back of the room, suggested there were too many men on her projects. While at face value I don’t have enough information to agree with her particular case, I do believe this thinking leads to an area where we need to focus – not on equity, but on balance.

Geert Hofstede has done a great deal to help us understand cultural differences in a more concrete way. He breaks national cultures into six different dimensions: power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long term orientation and indulgence (have a look at his website for an overview of all of these dimensions).
Hofstede's Dimensions of National Culture
That ‘masculinity’ dimension isn’t a ratio of males to females in that country, or what gender you or I currently are. It’s about the relative dominance of values between achievement and success (masculine) and caring for others and quality of life (feminine).

While there are overall country-based norms, that’s really a collection of very diverse individuals. There’s a bias toward one or the other extreme based on gender, but not a strict mapping. I, for example, on a scale of 1-100 (feminine to masculine) come up with a score of 25, compared to Canada’s overall average of 52 based on Hofstede’s reckoning. No jokes here, please: I’m guessing it has something to do with growing up with 5 older sisters.

These national dimensions, not surprisingly, manifest themselves in organizations as well, driven by, among other things, where the organization exists worldwide, preferences of key leaders, and the sector the organization swims in. An aerospace company in, say, China will have a very different culture than a non-profit company working with the homeless in Canada. Large, public, corporate structures tend more toward masculinity, as achievement and success (along with competition, I might add), often in financial terms, drive their very existence as a corporation. Read Joel Bakan’s book The Corporation or watch the documentary of the same name for more meat here.

In these places, this gender (im)balance is often manifested as a ‘glass ceiling’ beyond which women experience as greater difficulty ‘climbing the corporate ladder’. Indeed, if you look at the majority of prominent women that have risen to the top rungs of those ladders, you will see behaviours that are more closely associated with traditional (not necessarily optimal) focus on monetary expression of achievement and success. Again, that’s the very nature of the structure of the corporation. One might say that women have to ‘act like a man’ to break that ceiling.

Getting back to that woman’s tongue-in-cheek comment from the back of the room, my experience is that too many projects, too many organizations have a gender imbalance. Not the ratio of males to females in the organization, but the degree to which decisions are based on achievement and success (masculinity) vs concern for others and quality of life (femininity). Leaning too strongly toward on-time on-budget project management can destroy staff and relationships, actually leading to increased duration and budget.

Having been on a huge project with 40% annual turnover (just one of the drivers for being very late and very expensive) strongly influences my viewpoint here.

Sure, many projects get done that way, many organizations make profits that way. I strongly believe, based on years of experience with hundreds of organizations, that a more balanced approach between those two extremes would result in more project successes, more organizational profit and growth. An imbalance in either direction (there is clearly a bias in one direction in the corporate world) tends to push more teams and companies over the brink to failure.

After thinking this woman’s comment through in this context, I would tend to agree with her assertion on the surface, with this sort of clarification. If we are out of kilter in any of the dimensions that Hofstede points out, we are subject to blindsides.

Another reason that diversity should be cherished and nurtured in teams. Stay balanced. – JB

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