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.
With all of the uncertainty everyone is facing, there are three guarantees that you should expect :
1. Everything will take longer. Conferencing everyone in, trying to call into a customer service center, or waiting in line at the grocery store, expect everything to take longer.
2. Emotions will be running high. Everyone is facing uncertainty, but each person’s circumstances are different. It serves us to remember that as empathy is often the first causality in stressful situations. Even if you can’t see emotions, they are there and will influence people’s effectiveness and productivity, hence point number one.
3. Your colleagues, employees, and direct reports are TRUSTWORTHY. Please don’t make people earn your trust – start by giving it. Even if you can’t see them at their desk, even if they don’t respond immediately to your email, assume that points one and two are contributing to any delays, not that they are slacking off, untrustworthy, and lacking commitment.
It’s natural when dealing with sudden change and uncertainty for our brain to look for shortcuts via assumptions and expectations.
Shift these positively to strengthen relationships and help people be at their best.
Three questions to help busy managers lighten their load while developing their people
As a manager you know there is never a shortage of problems that
need fixing. Consider how many times this occurs in a typical day; someone
knocks on your door with a problem, a complaint, a request, or an idea that
they want your help addressing.
Who should be the first to offer a solution in these typical
types of conversations?
When I ask this of audiences, the room is always quick to
pipe-up with a communal “THEY SHOULD!” My follow-up question is always, “who
usually offers a solution first?” With much less enthusiasm, some of the braver
soles in the audience admit “we do.”
There are very good reasons why managers tend to be the first to
offer solutions and advice to other people’s problems, even if a little too
quickly or a little too often.
For starters having the answers, figuring things out, and
solving problems are precisely the skills that have helped many smart and
accomplished people achieve their success. Not to mention most managers that my
firm works with are genuinely just trying to be helpful.
On the other side are a whole host of workplace frustrations
that leave managers feeling like the only way to survive the day and protect their
energy and sanity is to solve things as quickly as possible and move to the
Do any of the following
scenarios sound familiar?
It feels like people are constantly dumping their problems on you to fix?
It feels like you keep having the same conversations again and again?
It feels like people are continually complaining about problems instead of bringing solutions forward ?
It feels like your job description should also include workplace firefighter, or worse, babysitter?
That to save time and ensure things are done correctly, it feels easier to just do it yourself?
If you find yourself nodding along in agreement to three or more
of the scenarios, chances are, you are at risk of what I call
This is a form of decision fatigue,
which refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual
after an extended period of decision making. The consequence of decision
fatigue may be the tendency to go for takeout over a healthy salad or skip the
gym for a Netflix binge following an intense day of decision making.
Fixer-Fatigue can be thought of as the deteriorating quality of solution-seeking conversations led by people dealing with a high volume of problems.
As a result, many managers stop asking questions and instead find themselves diving directly into fix-it mode, problem-solving and advice-giving.
Whether you want to develop your team to become more
self-reliant problem solvers, or you are tired of other people’s problems
suddenly becoming your problems to fix, there are three questions that when
asked consistently, will help decrease the potential of Fixer-Fatigue.
Take two; someone knocks on your door with a problem, complaint, request or idea. Instead of jumping into solutions, advice and fix-it mode, start by asking the following questions:
Question #1: What have you tried
This may seem like an obvious question but is surprisingly
under-asked. The benefit of opening with this question is that it immediately
starts you from their perspective and establishes a two-way dialogue.
Unfortunately, managers suffering from fixer-fatigue often respond
by stating the most obvious solution. Rarely is it helpful and instead, often
shuts people down.
I have witnessed the most well-intentioned people fall into this
trap (myself included). Liz Wiseman, the author of the New York Times Bestseller:
calls these leaders the “accidental diminishers.” This is because they
accidentally shut down the conversation, the intelligence, and the ideas of
others by taking-over the problem at hand.
The power of starting with the simple “what have you tried so
far?” has a two-fold advantage. First, asking it shows that you respect the
person and their abilities, especially if they are skilled and experienced in
the area they are bringing to you. Secondly, their response establishes a
starting point. This is true even if their answer is, “I haven’t tried
Especially in the latter case, it is critical to resist jumping
to solutions or offering your ideas as it will only reinforce the expectation
that you will fix the problem for them. Instead, look to challenge them to
think about their problem more deeply. Questions could include: What ideas do you
have? What has stopped you from acting on them?
If you consistently have people showing up at your door with the
expectation that you will solve their problem, it should raise a red flag.
Instead of getting angry and judging others for a lack of initiative or
motivation, use it to prompt your curiosity.
Why do people feel like they need permission to make a decision?
Look internally, what might you, as their manager, be doing to promote this
If you habitually fall into the advice trap and default to
solving other people’s problems, you may inadvertently be training people to
drop their problems on your desk.
Question #2: What else would be
helpful for me to understand about this situation?
This is a personal favorite of mine because this question helps
bring to light the periphery information. It also challenges people to think
more broadly and empathetically about their problem and the different
perspectives others may have about the same situation.
Additionally, it helps you avoid the trap of escalating a
problem with the intention of helping someone only to learn additional context
that would have changed your approach or your stance altogether.
People naturally tend to start from their perspective, remembering
and sharing information selectively to help build their side and justify their
actions. Your job is to make doing so more difficult and thereby challenging
them to think more broadly.
Other variations of the question include: What might this
problem look like from the outside?
What would the other side say is the most important thing for us
to understand? Or finally, what else could be contributing to complicate this
By committing yourself to ask this question, and the initiator
to consider their answers, you both get a fuller view of the situation and
ensure neither succumb to confirmation bias or
move forward on too narrow of a view.
Question #3: How are you looking for to move this forward?
This final question puts the accountability directly on the person
bringing the problem. It engages them to think about how they see things moving
forward and what (if any), help they need in the process.
Often this question is phrased as, how can I help? Or, what do
you need from me? As helpful as they
seem, they often initiate unintended consequences. Challenge yourself to frame
the question in a way that doesn’t automatically insinuate that you need to be
involved. If they need your help or support, they will ask. And if you can
support, now you know the best way to offer it.
Surprisingly, even though many managers say they are frustrated
with dealing with the constant barrage of crisis crossing their desks, it can
also be rewarding, especially if you can save the day. Be careful not to react
by rescuing people or interjecting yourself into a solution to make yourself
feel valuable. Instead, refocus on developing people to need you less and
trust themselves more.
Asking these three questions will undoubtedly save you time,
frustration and energy. Not only that, but simultaneously they will ensure you solve
the right problem when necessary, stay involved where needed, and step
back more often.
Besides, people are almost always more motivated to act on their
own ideas versus advice from others, no matter how good your solution is!