Bringing organizations into the 21st century, step one

Last week I wrote a post about how I’ve been surprised and a bit disappointed over how organizational culture largely seems to be at a standstill even though technology and the economy are continuously evolving in a frenzy of development and reinvention. In short, while everything else changes, we continue to expect and look for the same traits and behaviors in our employees.

That same evening after I posted on my blog, my husband mentioned to me how much he like my post, but that just when he was getting excited about the new ideas for how to embrace the future and the diversity among his team members that he thought I was going to write about, I just stopped. I said something needs to change, but I never said what. And I guess I have to admit, that could potentially be frustrating. Well, I’ve been thinking about this, and about what I can offer in ways of new ideas.

I’ve been reading a book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Reading this book, and watching her TED talk which I did before buying the book, has really been an eye-opener for me. About a year ago I saw one of those lists that like to circulate on social media. This one was something along the lines of ‘25 signs that you’re an introvert’, and reading that list was a defining moment for me. I recognized pretty much every single sign on that list. I have always assumed that I am an extrovert, and people have always told me that I am so extroverted. And the reason is I’m talkative and social. In manageable doses that is. But people of course never see the times when I really need time out to recuperate after being social and talkative, because obviously that’s when I go off to be by myself. And this apparently is typical of introverts. The thing is, being an introvert is often mistakenly defined as shy and asocial; words which have quite negative connotations. But that is not what introvert means. According to Cain, introverts and extroverts simply “differ in the levels of outside stimulation that they need to function well.” And they work differently. “Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration.” While introverts may have great social skills, after a while they often need to be on their own to recuperate. They may also prefer deep discussions to small talk. And the point is, not all introverts are the same, you can of course be introverted to different degrees.

For me it was a relief to realize that all these traits in me that have felt a bit weird and worrisome are completely normal. In organizational or team settings I’ve often felt that I’m not really part of the group. Like I’m a bit of an outsider. Even in social settings, especially when I was younger, where, despite loving my friends to pieces, I just didn’t want to spend every waking moment with them in large groups like they seemed to want to. It kind of made me wonder if I was a bad team member or friend. So you can imagine, reading that other people are the same was pretty great.

According to Cain, between 30-50% of people in the US are introverted. And the US, if you don’t mind me saying, is a pretty extroverted society, so the number may possibly even be even higher in other parts of the world. But organizational culture globally very much follows the US norm. Cain so eloquently explains how, from a culture of character, ours has evolved into a culture of personality where we are “urged to develop an extroverted personality for frankly selfish reasons.”

The other day when I was interviewing another man who has opted out, everything seemed to suddenly fall into place. He told me that he always thought he was an extrovert but has come to the conclusion that it turns out he is an introvert. Wow. Or rather, the reason I thought ‘wow’ was that the man I interviewed before him also told me he was an introvert and that he never really felt at home in his career. And come to think of it, the man before that was an introvert too. And I started thinking back to the women I interviewed several years ago, and I’m going to have to be in touch with them again to ask, but I have a feeling many of them are introverts as well. Could there be a connection between being an introvert and opting out?

Think about it. Organizational cultures aren’t developed for introverts. We are expected to be extroverts, to be team players, to be outspoken, and to be great sales people (even if we aren’t in sales). Our working spaces are increasingly becoming open spaces where if you’re an introvert you may find it incredibly tiring and uncomfortable to never be able to escape other people’s gazes (whether or not they are actually looking at you) which makes you feel like you can never be yourself. There is no room for quiet and solitude. Not so much what you say but how you say things is what’s valued and it is often the loudest person who is heard and receives recognition. And no, the loudest idea is not necessarily the best idea at all; it is just the one we tend to go with because it is voiced with such conviction.

So what does this mean in practical terms? One of my main points in last week’s post was that we need to really embrace diversity in organizations to match the increasing diversity we see on global markets. And I don’t just mean focusing on having a culturally diverse work force, for example. I mean really embracing that there are different ways of doing things, of thinking, and of being that may all be equally good, and, perhaps more importantly, that bring out the best in people in different ways. How about actually walking the talk regarding the importance of different roles and personality types in teams and organizations? But also embracing and creating different environments and solutions for work for people with different wants and needs. Maybe not everyone should be in an open space. Maybe meeting routines need to be different so that not only the loud people are heard. Maybe we need to accept that not everyone will want to be nor should even have to be a so-called team player. Some people work better in groups, some people work better alone, some in an office and some at home. Some people work better in the morning, some better at night. Some like to work several hours in a stretch. Some just can’t, but it doesn’t mean they work less. And it should all be ok and we need to develop routines to support this.

Well, this is getting long so I’ll stop here for now. But this is the first in a series of thoughts and ideas of how we can really change the way we think in organizations. To be continued.

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Organizations at a standstill in the fast changing economy

I have been teaching an undergraduate course in organizational behavior this fall and I have quite enjoyed it. Working with and talking to students is fun, although teaching a course for the first time is always a hell of a lot of work. But although the course was new to me, the content wasn’t, since organizational behavior is basically what I worked with my entire business career. For those of you not fluent in business school lingo, organizational behavior is everything that has to do with people in the workplace – anything from motivation to teamwork to individual assessment. In a nutshell it’s how people behave, how well they do, whether or not they like what they’re doing, and how you can inspire them to do even better, which of course is crucial knowledge for any leader. And organizational behavior continues to be relevant for me in my opting out research, as I study what it is that makes people want to opt out of the organizations they work for and what it is that feels meaningful to them. So in other words, this was a good course for me to teach.

Going through the course literature brought back memories of jobs that I’ve had and projects and teams I’ve been involved in. Over the years, I’ve always saved material that is relevant when working with individuals and teams, and as a result I have a toolbox that I can dip into whenever needed. Who knew that it would come in handy for this course? It turned out, for example, that many of the tests referred to in the course literature I have either taken myself or used with my team years ago. It was of course great to have real and not just theoretical experience of what I was teaching, but I was somewhat surprised, to be honest, and a bit concerned that not more has happened on that front over the years.

I take it as a sign that organizational culture, the traits and behavior that we value in people, and how we think of work really isn’t keeping up with all the progress that is happening around us. While technology is taking giant leaps forward, assessment of individuals, of how they work, and of their output really doesn’t seem to have evolved much since the end of the 90’s when I took these very same tests. Not only that; the qualities we value and idealize in organizations are pretty much the same as they were a couple of decades ago, as well as still being very homogenous and one-sided. This is kind of ironic since the economy is becoming ever more globalized and diverse. And there is an ample amount of research that shows that the best way to work is really very relative and individual. One size just doesn’t fit all.

It makes me wonder. Most organizations really don’t seem to be doing much differently when it comes to managing their people. Just like individuals need to do something differently in order to develop or reinvent themselves (because if they do more of the same they are just going to get more of the same), especially in these times of economic uncertainty, shouldn’t organizations be doing so too? So listen up organizational leaders, in order to really reinvent your business and stay competitive, maybe it’s time to rethink not only your offering, but also how you evaluate your people, what you value in your people, and how you expect them to deliver what it is you need.

But back to my toolbox. One of the tests that I was able to share with my students, and that I have also taken myself years ago, was Belbin’s Team Roles. However, looking at my results, I hardly recognized that younger version of myself. I was much more extroverted then than I am now, and even somewhat aggressive. Which is perhaps to be expected. I was relatively new on the job market at the time, and I needed to prove and create a place for myself. I knew what was expected of me and what was valued in the business world and my behavior and my answers in the test certainly reflected that. Now, on the other hand, I’m an academic. The same qualities aren’t expected of me, and are not necessarily even desirable. I am older and more mature, I know myself better, and I don’t want nor feel that I need to act in a certain way to please current or prospective employers. And although test results give an indication of a person’s personality and traits, this just goes to show the danger of uncritically accepting these results when assessing people in organizations, as well as assuming that individual characteristics are permanent. Typologies can be especially harmful to women’s careers, because women are often defined by factors out of their control. For example, if they temporarily have to focus on caring for people who need them, they may be defined as unambitious, which in turn has an effect on their career prospects. But that is a topic that I will save for another blog post.

Julia and me, Part 2 (and some thoughts on being a (bad) feminist)

The other day I was having lunch with a colleague and we were talking about how torn we both sometimes feel between having to be a good feminist and just wanting to be there for our children, without having to overthink whether or not we’re setting a good example. In many ways I do think I am a good role model for my children. I work with something I am passionately interested in and I regularly lose myself in this work, which admittedly often frustrates them. I hope I’m teaching them by example to dream big and work hard.

Like many women who have opted out and in, I also organize my work so that I can be there for my children when they need me, which feels both important and meaningful. For example, I work out of my home office several days a week and I have a lot to say about when and where I work, so I really am around when important things happen in their lives. One thing that I am especially proud of and that makes me very happy is that my children tell me that they can really talk to me about anything, and I believe one reason they feel that way is that I am actually around when they need to talk.

But also like many women who opt out and in, one of the results and perhaps downsides of organizing my life to better accommodate my care responsibilities, is that, as a result, I can take even more responsibility for childcare and household chores than I would if I had a job that kept me out of the house all day every day. So while women like me are able to better combine different areas of life, it really doesn’t do much for gender equality in the home sphere, nor in the work place to be honest. At least not in the short run. And being the gender scholar that I am, this bugs me a little.

Well, as my colleague and I were talking about this, we came to the conclusion that yes, it’s good to be a good feminist and set a good example, but we (women) also just need to give ourselves a break sometimes. Strange as it may sound, we are actually only human.

So I felt especially comforted when I stumbled across a book by Roxanne Gay called Bad Feminist. Gay is an academic and a feminist, but she calls herself a bad feminist because she just can’t seem to live up to the somewhat unrealistic expectations she argues many feminists place on women. She writes, “For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choice.” So in order to be a good feminist and a good example to other feminists, we have to always make the right decisions, always have the right opinions, and never slip up and God forbid do or say anything unfeminist. Well, we do. We slip up all the time. According to Gay, feminism should be about supporting equality in whatever way we can and do, and it is better to be a bad feminist than no feminist at all. And to be honest, like many other women I am often too hard on myself, so I feel pretty grateful towards anyone who gives me a break and permission to be human.

One feminist who I really admire is Julia Kristeva. As I’ve mentioned before, I became acquainted with her work while working on my doctoral thesis, and there was something about her take on issues like feminism and feminine identity that really appealed to me. Her approach to womanhood differs from that of many other feminist theorists, who, in turn, have accused her of being an essentialist (believing in traditional concepts and ideals) and just unfeminist in general. And she is neither. One reason she is seen as something of a threat to the feminist movement is that she has introduced the body to the feminist debate, and argues that motherhood is, in fact, “at the crossroads of biology and meaning”. The reason this doesn’t appeal to many other feminists is that they worry that bringing the body and motherhood into the debate could easily be misconstrued and used to argue that a woman’s calling is to have and care for children and that her rightful place is in the home. I want to be perfectly clear here and say that neither Kristeva nor I believe that. On the contrary, Kristeva recognizes that not all women even want to be mothers. But to be fair, I can also understand what it is feminists are afraid of.

But being a mother and having given birth to two children, I can certainly appreciate Kristeva’s thoughts. Although I am a strong believer in that we are shaped and conditioned by socially constructed societal norms and expectations (i.e. we are taught to believe that women are the ones who are best equipped physically and emotionally to care for children, which really isn’t true, men are just as good given half the chance), social construction still doesn’t seem to quite adequately explain the entire mothering experience. Giving birth and becoming a mother is a powerful physical and biological experience. And there is a bond between mother and child that goes beyond gendered expectations and norms.

So maybe, like Roxanne Gay, I am also a bad feminist. Or maybe, just maybe, being a bad (read: human) feminist is what makes me a good one?

Men who opt out

Thursday this week was a big day for me. I was at a conference presenting papers, which isn’t extraordinary as such, but one of the papers I presented was on my research on men opting out. So now that I’ve spoken about it publicly I feel like it’s finally official! This research is really happening!

Before you get too excited let me start by saying that this research is really very much in the early stages. I’m still only starting out and in my presentation I presented preliminary, tentative impressions of the interviews I’ve conducted so far. But having said that, there are some things that can be discerned from these interviews that are really very interesting. And working on this presentation really reminded me how exciting and fascinating this research is.

The first main impression is that men’s opting out and in processes really don’t seem to differ that much from women’s. They basically go through the same stages from opting out to opting in. Like women they experience turmoil, fatigue and a lack of control; then they experience something that triggers them to take the step and actually opt out; and in their new lifestyles and/or alternative solutions for work that they opt in to, they gain a sense of authenticity and coherence, and a feeling of having more control over their lives.

And just like for women, a common denominator seems to be the hectic, high-pressure, all-consuming nature of corporate culture. Although their opting out and in experiences are anything but easy, I’m still secretly pleased to notice this because it supports the notion that there is something detrimentally wrong with the way we organize work as well as with the working cultures we create. Well, at least it is for many people and we really need to do something about this. We need to critically examine what it is we are doing to people in these working environments and what we can and should be doing instead.

And then there is the way we define successful careers. The career models that continue to be idealized by most organizations today are quite linear. You’re generally expected to progress up the proverbial career ladder in a timely fashion if you want to reach the top. Too much deviation from this path might define you as unambitious or not having what it takes. Now there is a lot of research on different career models that better correlate with how people today want to and actually do live their lives and manage their careers, but still, the linear career model continues to be the one most prevalent.

This linear career model is a remnant of the post-World War II career model that was developed by men for men. Typical to that era, these men generally had housewives at home to take care of the home front, and it has been argued that managerial jobs weren’t created for just one person, but for one and a half people. That is, for the man with the job, and also for his wife who did everything else for him. And considering professionals work longer hours than ever before, I guess its no wonder a lot of contemporary people seem to have trouble handling it all!

Because this career model was created by men for men, we call it a masculinist career model. However, as we all know, not all men are the same. They don’t all want the same thing and they don’t all want to work in the same way. Just as women are a diverse group, there are multiple masculinities, that is, different ways of being a man. So while these career models are created for men, in reality they’re created for a certain traditional way of being a man, which doesn’t really leave a lot of room for much diversity among men either.

But another thing I’ve found, is that there are a lot of assumptions about men; almost more, it seems, than about women. Or at least this is the impression I’m getting. When telling people that I’m interviewing men, I sometimes get comments about how men won’t open up and talk about their feelings, or how they don’t opt out, and if they do it’s for completely different reasons than it is for women. For example, many assume that relationships aren’t as important for men as for women, and sometimes I hear that if men do opt out it’s not about difficulties or turmoil but more about challenge and self-actualization. And even more interestingly, these comments often come from men.

Well, like I said before, I’m in the very early stages so I can’t make any generalizations, but so far I would say none of these stereotypical assumptions are proving true.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. In the meantime I’m always looking for more men to interview so if you are a man who has opted out and in, or know of a man who has opted out and in, and who would be willing to be interviewed, please email me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com. Thank you!