(And Why Some Women Don’t Trust Men, And How to Break The Vicious Cycle)
Nobody, it seems, wants to talk about one of the most important dynamics of the modern workplace: Men quite often don’t trust women, and women with comparable frequency don’t trust men. The breakdown of trust is especially common when the male is a manager and the female is his subordinate. Burdened by stereotypes, myths and other hidden assumptions about female employees, he doesn’t trust her to get the job done. Having repeatedly been marginalized by her male bosses and male co-workers, she adapts in ways that exacerbate the breakdown in trust.
This reciprocal breakdown in trust can torpedo not just one, but two careers. Still, all is not lost. There are ways to sever the dual ring of vicious cycles and reestablish trust between men and women in the workplace.
Cycle 1: Why men don’t trust women
Let’s start with the stereotypes about women as employees. Women always put family and children above their jobs. If there’s a ballet lesson or if school gets out early, the callback to a key client will have to wait until tomorrow. Women always get pregnant and take maternity leave just when a new office is opening. Women take Family Medical Leave to care for an elderly parent with a stroke or a teenage child with mononucleosis just when a new computer operating system is being installed. Women are always on the verge of quitting when child-care responsibilities become overwhelming, and they will no doubt quit right before a crucial deadline.
We move on to another unstated but critical myth. Women are emotional and not analytical. Women will make workplace decisions based on feelings rather than facts. Women worry more about their co-workers’ comfort level than about getting the work done.
Then there’s the hidden assumption that a female employee is not really committed to the business. In the minds of many male managers, this assumption is reinforced every time a woman requests flexible work accommodations. Working from home means less “face time” with her male manager, and when a woman is out of sight, she must not really be working for the company.
Sometimes a male manager assumes that his female subordinate has gotten her job solely because the company had to comply with affirmative action guidelines. He feels that the pressure from higher-ups to diversity the workforce has lowered the quality of new hires. He looks at the top echelons of the company, sees very few female executives, and concludes that investing in a junior woman is a waste of his time. Better to not trust her to do important assignments. Just let her wither on the vine.
Cycle 2: How women reinforce the mistrust
Let’s start with the natural inclination to trust those who are like us. A male manager may perceive that his female subordinate is just different. She has had different experiences. Perhaps she didn’t play on the high school basketball team. Maybe she could care less about the lack of good relievers in the bullpen or the dubious wisdom of a first-round draft pick. Having experienced harassment or bullying in the workplace, a woman may have her guard up. She may be disinclined to engage in backslapping, deprecating humor. When it’s time to remind a co-worker about an upcoming meeting, she may not tell him to “get your butt over here pronto.”
Let’s move on to the false inferences that male managers draw from women’s inferior salaries. Many women find it difficult to demand higher starting salaries and to negotiate raises. As a result, they end up doing the same work as their male peers for less. Managers are privy to salary information. A male manager may interpret a woman’s lower salary not as evidence of inequity, but as a sign of weakness, as an indicator that she does not really have a long-range commitment to the company.
A male manager may find himself excluding his female subordinate from informal get-togethers where co-workers can bond with each other. He may believe that women don’t want to go out for drinks, take advantage of free tickets to the season opener, or attend industry conferences. He may worry that close familiarity will be interpreted as sex discrimination or sexual harassment. When his female subordinate is excluded from these bonding events, he doesn’t get to know her. Feeling excluded, she lacks the motivation to go the extra mile for the company, and the gap in trust just widens.
Finally – and perhaps most important – you cannot trust an employee if you feel her behavior is unpredictable. A male manager may find it difficult to give critical assignments to a female employee because he’s not sure how she will interact with her co-workers or with customers. He’s not sure how she will handle a crisis. He doesn’t feel confident that she will put in the extra hours when the deadline approaches.
This sense of unpredictability is exacerbated by what I’ll call the toggling strategy that many women are forced to adopt. Having received conflicting signals about how to act in the workplace, she toggles back and forth between the traditional male mode – decisive, aggressive, demanding, career-focused – and the more sex-neutral collegial mode – collaborative, inclusive, less dictatorial. This toggling frustrates her manager, who perceives her as alternately antagonistic and ineffective.
Trust has become a key competency
There’s no need to dwell here on the adverse consequences of this lack of trust for the woman’s career. Nor does it require an in-depth analysis to see the enormous waste of talent and corporate resources. The critical point is that trusting co-workers of the opposite sex has become a key competency for assuming a position of leadership. A breakdown in trust can sidetrack a man’s career as well as a woman’s.
The business world has become increasingly diverse and globalized. A male manager who cannot look beyond the stereotypes of his female employees may be similarly unable to develop trusting relationships with peers and clients of different races, ethnic groups, religions and nationalities. The same goes for a female who has developed self-protective behaviors that exacerbate the breach in trust. Failure to trust will translate into failure to advance to the top ranks of the organization.
Breaking the cycles of mistrust
So how can a male manager resist his stereotypes about women in the workplace? And how can a woman steer clear of the safety strategies that exacerbate the mistrust?
First, he needs to accept as fact that women as a group are no less committed to their careers than men. Take it at face value that a woman who gets an education, shows up every day for work, completes her assignments and is receptive to feedback is, in fact, serious about her job. Understand that everyone has some family responsibilities and that a good manager can incorporate absences into his planning, whether they’re due to pregnancy, tennis elbow or a heart attack. If a woman is taking advantage of some form of flexible work arrangement, focus on the work performed, and not on how often you see her face.
He needs to persist in his efforts to include his female subordinates in the entire range of work-related activities. That means water-cooler conversations, after-work drinks, sports events and industry-wide meetings. She needs to break the habit of refusing any such overtures, to entertain the possibility of loyalty and respect for him as a manager. She needs to recognize that through his efforts at inclusiveness, she will get to know about the business. She will get to know him and his peers. She will trust him.
He needs to avoid pat assumptions about how she will react to others, as these assumptions rarely hold up in practice. He needs to make a genuine effort to get to know her, to understand why she acts the way she does, and she needs to allow him to understand her. She needs to send him the message that he can be confident about her reactions to future deadlines, mishaps and crises at work.
She needs to tell him straightaway when an assignment is unclear or when his expectations about her performance are fuzzy. He needs to tell her if she is acting in ways that make him uncomfortable.
He needs to realize that most women suffer from lack of adequate feedback, and not from poor motivation or bad intentions. He needs to tell her when she’s erred, to suggest mentors and coaches, and to model behavior. When there is a problem, he needs to no longer be reluctant to address it. And she needs to accept his advice. Don’t write her off. And welcome him into the bargain.