With her #WorkLikeAWoman campaign, Mary Portas makes a compelling case. The idea of a workplace where collaboration, empathy, instinct and trust are just part of the way things are done makes absolute sense. It’s also depressingly true that the tough and aggressive “business game” she describes is still alive and kicking.
Only the other day, my business partner and I were sharing our concerns about the corrosive impact on a leadership team’s performance of the “banter” that appears to be an acceptable part of its culture. As it comes right from “the top”, it’s giving permission to other “alpha males” in the group to “flex their muscles” and inhibit the contribution of those who shy away from conflict, or just see no point in it. This means that the group isn’t delivering to its full potential. So, this isn’t just about collaboration, empathy, instinct and trust being right from an ethical point of view, they’re essential from a commercial point of view as well.
I have a slightly different perspective on a couple of things, however. The first is that this is a man vs. woman thing. About 15 years ago I attended a presentation by Prof Judi Marshall, an eminent learning and development practitioner where she talked about what it was like for a woman working in a man’s world. When it came to the Q&A session at the end, I took the chance to speak. What I said was that the experience she had described was one I recognised – of being unable to get a word in edgeways, of being casually ignored or aggressively dismissed. What she was describing was one that, from my perspective at least, was, therefore, something many men experienced when dealing with “alpha males” and found just as disenfranchising.
If Mary Portas is keen to create a movement of women, for women, I get that. What it runs the risk of doing, however, is creating yet more “them and us” and we’ve got quite enough of that at the moment. If I had the chance, I’d ask her how she thinks that she could make a campaign (that I support wholeheartedly, both personally and professionally) more inclusive.
My other alternative view relates to the words “tough” and “resilient”. They appear in her description of the aggressive male dominated world she chose to leave. In our work, we use the Lumina Spark© tool and Tough appears as one of the 3 qualities that define Outcome Focused. This aspect can, of course, be the cause of offense and conflict if unchecked. It can also, however, be the spur to deal with inconvenient reality. In terms of resilience, I see no justification for expecting people to be resilient in the face of the sort of banter my colleague recently witnessed. However, in life, “stuff happens” and being able to deal with the unexpected and/or unwelcome is hugely valuable. So, with that in mind, I believe that negatively positioning resilience is unhelpful.
Finally, on the basis that people tend to remember the last thing they read, I need to make it clear that I’m in absolute agreement with Mary Portas about the need for the culture of the workplace to change. This is something that Odyssey are actively involved in and all I’m asking is to be seen as an ally, not the enemy!