(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

Henley Leadership Group Blog

How To Disrupt The Guy Culture


As seen on Forbes.com "Editors' Picks".

The news about super-predator Harvey Weinstein and other less violent but no less noxious serial abusers such as actor Kevin Spacey, director James Toback, Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, Uber co-founder and ex-CEO Travis Kalanick, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, as well as the next guy who will surely pop up on the #MeToo radar screen, is not news. Not to women. It’s just guy culture: insensitive, abusive, privileged, misogynistic.

Every woman knows it well.

In 30 years as a leadership consultant, I have seen plenty of guys-being-guys in the workplace: A man asserting what he imagines to be his prerogative to exercise power over a woman while placing his organization’s big needs behind his little ones.

It happens all the time, and when women begin working, it happens quickly.

In 1988, I was a young woman working at a major energy company. I trained men (there were very few female managers) in the basics of supervisory and management skills. My boss called me “girl” and “sweetie.” He patted me on the ass when I walked by. I finally told him what I thought of him, and in our last exchange, when he fired me, he pounded his fist on his desk. I thought he was going to hit me.

 I went to HR, and they recommended I seek a counselor through the Employee Assistance Program. It was, they said, not a workplace problem. It was my problem.

So, I left, and decided I would never allow myself to be victimized again. I started my own consulting firm; I wanted more control and say about what happened to me at work. Many women choose to start their own companies rather than work within an unhealthy and demeaning culture. Today, more than 9.4 million U.S. firms are owned by women. They generated $1.5 trillion in sales in 2015, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners.

After founding my firm, while still in my early 30s, I taught a course for companies on sexual harassment: what it was; what men should and shouldn’t do; and, most important to the firms that hired me, how they could avoid being sued. It wasn’t easy. The guys just couldn’t figure it out. They had pin-ups in their lockers, thought it was okay to comment on a woman’s legs, make suggestive comments and tell dirty jokes. They thought their attention was flattering.

 They never got it. I stopped doing this work; it was soul-sucking.

Almost as depressing was working with women within the guy culture. I coached a senior executive after her boss pressed himself against her on the elevator at a company off-site, and followed her to her hotel room, forcing his way through the door as she was trying to close it. She convinced him to leave, but she was terrified. When she confronted him (as I advised), he said he couldn’t remember anything. He was too drunk.

She decided not to go to HR. I didn’t press her to do so (to my regret), and later, when she was let go for “performance issues,” it was too late to do anything.

I was wrong not to urge her to press the issue. I had been trained, like many women, to presume I was powerless.

Today, after the swift fall of so many powerful men outed by the women and men they abused, insulted and harassed, the question is: Have we reached a tipping point?

I don’t think so. This is not the way change happens. It takes more than news stories, internet memes and a few famous jerks losing their jobs.

How Change Happens

In the face of the pervasive organizational guy culture of assault and battery that prevails in so many companies in so many industries, change needs to be intentional.

A hydroelectric utility, for example, created a training program called The Courage to Intervene. Initially, the training was developed to address safety in the field and to encourage an ethical reporting environment in which people were encouraged to speak up when they observed something dangerous. The program cut down on accidents and became part of the organization’s culture. The utility then decided to broaden its boundaries to include dysfunctional behaviors of many kinds.

The company gave employees at all levels the tools and encouragement to speak up. If their managers wouldn’t listen, they were told to take it one level up. This requires tremendous courage on the part of employees who always fear for their jobs, and it’s a difficult leap for women trained from an early age to expect men to behave badly, and to think it’s somehow their fault.

A culture of openness and fairness emerged at the hydro-electric utility, but that is still not enough.

What really must happen to disrupt the guy culture is to have more women in key leadership roles. That makes sense along many dimensions. A 2016 analysis of almost 22,000 firms in 91 countries found that having women represent at least 30% of an organization’s leadership, or its C-suite executives, adds 6% to net profit margin.

Coincidence? I think not.

Business increasingly depends upon collaboration and teamwork. For teams to operate effectively, there needs to be trust and openness, and guy culture is inimical to that. The selfish pursuit of power, authority, and the satisfaction of personal needs, is destructive to businesses that depend upon the free flow of good, unbiased data.

The old computing saw applies: garbage in, garbage out.

The Good News

While we may not yet have come to the point where organizations consciously seek to root out the guy culture that prevents them from achieving their potential, there are, finally, more women in the workplace gaining strength and courage from one another. Issues that women have been too scared to talk about are being communicated widely.

There is also a consensus emerging that bad behavior at work is not okay. More women are refusing to believe that it is their problem. The stories we’ve been seeing these past weeks are a catalyst. Women are getting madder. And that’s good.

Unfortunately, stories about healthy and inclusive company cultures rarely make the news. But although creating a sane and productive culture may not land leaders on the front pages, it will improve their businesses and their lives.