The frustrating challenge women are facing in the workforce
I was recently invited to speak on a panel discussing the pandemic’s impact on the future of work. As part of an all-women panel, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the host opened the conversation with the following sentiments, “In a time that demands empathy from leaders, this is the opportunity for women to truly shine.”
As someone who has studied Emotional Intelligence and Empathy in the workplace for well over a decade, the first question was thrown to me, which was, “why is empathy so important right now?”
I was prepared for the question. The challenge was that I couldn’t get past the framing of the conversation. Admittedly, I am not always great at choosing my battles. Although there was a voice in my head that said, “Let it go, Sara, just answer the question…”
The louder voice said, “Take that on, Sara.”
Here is why; the framing of the panel discussion highlights the expectation that women are empathetic. This may not seem like a big deal, but here is the challenge. Data shows time and time again that when men display empathy, it is seen as distinct and favorable leadership ability, yet it’s simply the expectation when women display it. This doesn’t mean that a higher level of empathy doesn’t translate into more effective leadership for women. It does. The problem is that demonstrating empathy is perceived as a baseline expectation for women and NOT a distinct leadership skill as it is for their male counterparts.
Let’s get clear on a few things. First, empathy in leadership is a skill – period. Are some people more naturally empathetic? Yes. However, to a be exceptionally good at it requires putting thoughtful effort into strengthening it.
Second many women in the workforce are experiencing an additional layer of pressure. As reported here, “women are leaving the workforce at four times the rate as men. The burden of parenting and running a household while also working a job during the pandemic has created a pressure cooker environment in many households, and women are bearing the brunt of it.” Emotional exhaustion has skyrocketed by almost 73% in women who are balancing work and home obligations.
Third, cognitive empathy is a labor-intensive competency to practice. It is incredibly challenging to demonstrate empathy when you are drained of energy. The brain science of empathy backs that up.
The problem occurs when women are perceived as not being empathetic. When this happens (because it will happen for all the reasons I just shared), it is held against women far more than when men display the same empathy-lacking behaviors in identical situations.
But before getting upset, it is important to acknowledge that those who evaluate women most harshly when there is a perceived lack of empathy, especially when it comes to recognizing the additional layer of pressure most working women are experiencing in the pandemic – are actually other women. Research shows that women hold onto anger and hurt longer when another woman breaks their trust versus a man doing so in the workplace.
This double standard is an extra THIRD layer of pressure for women in the workplace. As I was speaking at a women’s event, recognizing where we as women are inadvertently perpetuating it is an important place to start.
My suggestion is that women need to continue to support women and watch the double standard we have with one another. If we are frustrated by people expecting women leader’s primary strengths to be collaboration, empathy, and supportiveness, then we need to be careful not to punish women more harshly when those expectations aren’t met. When empathy is shown, we need to acknowledge it as a desirable leadership quality, regardless of gender. I believe this is a powerful way women can lift other women up.
“Be the woman who fixes another woman’s crown without telling the world that it’s crooked.”
The reality is, we all benefit from the empathy of our organizations, leaders, and colleagues, which means we all need to work on demonstrating empathy when people aren’t at their best.
Luckily, this response triggered a powerful and empathetic conversation across our panel.
How to prioritize your time, energy, and to-do list with a set of simple questions
One of the most consistent questions I’ve been asked over the last eight months is, “With so much change, how do I handle everything?”
“Everything” may include adding the title of teacher to your list of daily responsibilities. Or perhaps it’s simultaneously managing on-site and virtual relationships. Or, balancing the nuances of being both married and home-office coworkers with your spouse for the first time.
Regardless of the specifics, we can all agree that what is required of us has changed and grown. And yes, different strategies are needed to meet the increased demands we are facing today.
The problem is we focus on finding strategies to help us manage it all without considering if it all actually has to be managed.
Clarifying these two questions is critical because your brain isn’t naturally designed to distinguish between the two under stress.
In fact, the more stressed you feel, especially when that stress is experienced for long periods, the more your body attempts to meet the stress demands by pumping additional cortisol reserves into your system. Cortisol alters your neurological and physiological functioning, priming your body and attention to stay on high alert. You may feel this physically by tense muscles, and emotionally by heightened levels of irritation and lowered levels of patience. As a result, even the smallest things trigger an outsized reaction as your cortisol loaded brain responds by amplifying the significance of the threat while simultaneously awfulizing the negative consequences if it is left addressed.
In a life or death situation, this is ideal, but in everyday environments, not so much. The unintended consequence is that your brain struggles to apply a sense of proportionality to experiences making it difficult to distinguish meaningless and mundane events from the urgent and important.
As a result, EVERYTHING appears to require your immediate attention and best efforts.
For example, when stress runs high and energy runs low your brain may treat your kids instance on wearing their Halloween custom to virtual school (even though it’s not Halloween), with the same urgency as needing to follow up with your insurance agent to understand changes to your health plan and what that means in the time of COVID.
Chances are that if you’re reading this, it’s because your natural response is to dig in and try to do it all. Chances are even higher that this approach has left you feeling both exhausted and perpetually locked in a cycle of never ending overwhelm.
Breaking that cycle requires acknowledging that both time and energy are finite resources. Therefore a strategy will be most useful if it helps you focus on regulating your energy and maximizing your time. This approach is the difference between feeling like you need to manage it all and determining what in fact, needs to be managed.
The next time it feels like the world’s to-do list is smothering you, try practicing the 7×7 Rule in response to overwhelm. Ask yourself these seven questions:
Will this matter in: 7 years, 7 months, 7 weeks, 7 days, 7 hours, 7 minutes, 7 seconds from now?
Does simply asking these questions solve the problem? No.
Does it cross things off your list? No.
What it does is help you put things into perspective, differentiate the meaningful from meaningless, prioritize where to put your time, attention, and how much emotional energy to give. These provide the clarity on what to take action on first.
The “Rule” of this strategy is not to give more time or energy than the amount of time it will matter. In other words, if it won’t matter in a week from now, don’t treat it as something that will matter seven months from now.
Your child wanting to wear their Halloween costume probably won’t matter in seven seconds from now because chances are they aren’t the only one. Let this one go – low energy input, low time input.
Ensuring you have the right health insurance – a much more important spend of time and energy.
Some situations, conversations, reactions, and decisions will have a lasting impact, so divert your best resource to those situations. This is not to say that small things shouldn’t bother you or aren’t worth reflecting on. They absolutely are, and you should use your emotional reactions as information to assess why that situation impacted you the way it did…and then respond in an equally measured way.
Not only is the Rule of 7×7 helpful in the moment, it is a skillful way to keep yourself in-check while preparing for a high pressure situation. This is especially powerful if you are a perfectionist. Sometimes good enough is actually good enough!
It is also a more structed way to reflect on stressful situations, particularlyif you have one of those critical brains that love to analyze your reactions to the day’s events just as your head hits the pillow.
I still don’t have the answer to how to do everything, and unfortunately, I don’t think that answer is out there. Instead, shift your question’s focus to ask yourself how you can use your time and energy the best way today.
As someone who studies, writes, coaches and speaks about how to develop exceptional leaders, I have seen how a crisis can distinguish the best leaders from the rest.
Never are strong leaders needed more than amid crisis. This is also when it is hardest to be an exceptional leader.
In crisis is where the ‘rubber hits the road’ when it comes to leadership. This is when a leaders proclaimed values are tested. It is much easier to be a good leader when everything is going well. But that’s not when we need leadership. Leadership is tested in the tough times – when the tide goes out.
Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. ~Warren Buffet
Earlier this week, I had a coaching client who was distraught about a decision that needed to be made about letting people go.
I have heard some of the most beautiful and compassionate stories of how companies have executed this hard decision. Unfortunately, I have also heard other examples that I’ve had a hard time understanding.
Today, I would like to say thank you to all of the leaders who’ve lost sleep trying to figure out how to save businesses and jobs;
Who are sacrificing just as much as they are asking their people to sacrifice;
Who showed up and engaged human to human, even though most were forced to communicate these difficult messages through screens;
Who made sure their people understood the contribution they had made to the company’s success;
Who pushed for their people to be able to say goodbye to colleagues and clients because the decision was due to circumstance not performance;
Ultimately, those who put people over process and did it with care, kindness, and compassion.
In crisis, the majority will over-focus on what needs to be done and under-focus on how they will do it.
It is these leaders, who focus on how to demonstrate their values, who take ownership of their impact, who will make the hard decisions but communicate them in a way where people feel seen, heard and valued; these are the leaders whose positive legacy will stay with us long after the crisis is behind us.
Following our call, my client realized he had been fighting the wrong battle – the decision that had to be made.
Accepting it was leadership of the business.
But his leadership was on full display when he started fighting for how he was going to communicate it – that is the leadership of people…even after the tide goes out!
You have some feedback for a direct report. It’s a conversation you should have had pre-coronavirus, but you put it off, hoping things would get better. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Now the frustration is building, but so has your compassion for the situation your employee is working within.
You don’t know if you should hold off having the conversation in an attempt to avoid adding to their stress levels or engage in the conversations now to keep things from getting worse.
After analyzing 360 Leadership Feedback Assessments of managers from over a dozen different professional service companies, I identified two of the most consistent traps well-intentioned leaders fall into when it comes to difficult conversations.
If these conversations weren’t challenging enough, now they are occurring over the phone and through video calls in the midst of a global pandemic. Unfortunately, this means that the consequences of these mistakes are often magnified and can have a lasting effect on the relationship long after people return to regular work conditions.
Tapping into your Emotional Intelligence (EQ) skills can help you avoid both traps.
EQ Trap #1: Not Managing Emotions.
No matter how experienced you are, initiating a performance or behavioral focused feedback conversation tends to fall into the “would rather avoid” category. The challenge with putting these off, even in the best of circumstances, is that frustrations fester the longer the conversation goes unaddressed.
Given that most people are working remotely at the moment, the opportunity to further avoid these conversations is now even greater. As a result, email after email is exchanged, call after call happens and these seemingly small frustrations start to compound.
Then one day, perhaps because you as the leader are stressed, or simply because your patience is low, a small frustration triggers an outsized negative response. Before you can catch yourself, you launch into your feedback conversation. Suddenly a potentially (difficult), but positive feedback conversation quickly morphs into a negative blowback conversation.
To truly understand the impact of each, let me clarify the differences.Feedback conversations are thoughtful conversations where the goal of the message is focused on the problems (i.e., you are late for meetings). The intention of the conversation is to lift performance by creating awareness, initiating learning, and creating positive, lasting change.
Blowback conversations are ones driven by the emotions felt in the moment, shifting the focus of the conversation to the recipient’s perceived character deficits (i.e., you are disrespectful). The intention of the conversation becomes tearing someone down by making them feel bad, guilty, or ashamed as a way of initiating change.
No one wants to admit to a blowback conversation. In fact, our data reveals that less than 10% of leaders acknowledge or are even aware they are engaging in blowback conversations. Interestingly, over half of the respondents said that they experienced performance conversations more like blowback than feedback (the recipients included direct reports, colleagues and vendors).
As negative as this sounds, it is understandable. When an employee, colleague, client or vendor breaks your trust, disappoints you, undermines you, questions your motives or performs poorly, it is understandable that you feel fed-up, angry and even resentful. Those emotions are not wrong or bad, nor are they even the problem.
The problem is the timing of the conversation in relation to the intensity of the expressed emotions.
The goal isn’t to remove emotions or side-stepping candid feedback. Instead, it is to recognize, understand and use emotions as important information to help you address the core issue in a more timely and productive way. A quote from Aristotle sums it up well:
“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not easy.”
Engaging in low-emotion, touchpoint conversations earlier and more consistently will increase the likelihood of a more effective conversation. As a leader it is essential that you deal with your own emotions before involving someone else to ensure the conversation is thoughtfully, feedback-focused and not emotionally, blowback-driven.
EQ Trap #2: Not Managing the Message.
In other instances, unmanaged emotions aren’t the problem; unaddressed feedback is the problem.
Too often a leader initiates a feedback conversation, but they never actually articulate the feedback. Instead, they avoid the potentially emotionally triggering parts hopingthat the recipient figures it out. Although this may make conversations less difficult in the moment, it almost certainly creates misunderstandings later on.
As George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying:
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
When leaders describe their frustrations of needing to have the same conversation multiple times without seeing the changes they are hoping for, I challenge them to check in and ask themselves if they have had the full conversation. Specifically, have they avoided any of the hard feedback in attempts to protect the relationship or lessen the risk of the other person getting upset?
Often the answer is yes, followed by an explanation to attempting to spare the feelings or minimize additional uncertainty in an already complex situation.
Although the intention is admirable, the impact of not clearly sharing feedback often has the exact opposite effect. Instead, this approach leaves the recipient to figure out what you meant and how to be successful in the future, which only adds to worry and stress.
Factor in remote environments and pandemic-driven anxiety, and unclear feedback has the potential to be totally misconstrued or taken much more negatively then the original feedback would have been if expressed in that moment.
I have heard clients, friends and family members recount the sleepless nights that followed a vague conversation with a boss leaving them to wonder and worrying if they were next to lose their jobs. This being the case even in situations where the likelihood of that occurring was considerably low.
Feedback may be hard to say in the moment but saying it once in a single conversation where the recipient is clear on where they stand and what you expect is easier than spreading it across multiple vague conversations – for both parties involved.
The reality of this pandemic is that emotions are running high and many difficult conversations will not end on a happy note. And yet, when you use your EQ to manage emotions and articulate the message, even the most difficult conversations can activate powerful, long-term trusting connections. It’s these relationships that will get us through and make us stronger on the other side.