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Henley Leadership Group Blog

The Big Idea: Men And Women Working As Partners


Previously published on Forbes.com

Men and women are at odds with one another in the workplace. Women are angry and speaking out. Men are nervous about how to act around women, afraid they might do or say something inappropriate.

Let’s face it: men and women tip-toeing around each other in the workplace is neither fun nor healthy nor conducive to getting the job done.

I am dedicated to supporting men and women working together as partners and equals. Imagine a workplace where every person’s contribution is valued, respected… and equally compensated regardless of gender.

How do we get there? It begins with having zero tolerance for any kind of sexual harassment at work. But that’s just a start. Zero tolerance will not get us where we need to go.

The bigger job is to create a healthy workplace culture where everyone can do their best. This requires skill, self-awareness and every individual’s willingness to change.  Each of us – men and women alike – must figure out how to upgrade the ways we interact with others. This means developing powers of self-regulation, the ability to hit the pause button and interrupt thoughts, behaviors and actions that disempower others. It means developing the courage to speak up if we felt wronged or victimized and say, “Hey, what you just said (or did) is not okay with me.” And it means learning to value our differences.

This isn’t rocket science. We all know that getting better at listening to others is a skill that promotes collaboration and productivity. Think of the millions of people who have been helped by taking the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) assessment over the past 75 years. Learning about one’s MBTI type – and one’s teammates’ – improves communication and teaches us that there is no one right or best way to be. Today, more than ever, it’s time to listen and learn about each other at work.   

The Key to Successful Collaboration

Recently, a small group of men and women from a global high-tech company gathered in a comfortable meeting room to solve a massive organizational problem. Their company’s culture was eating away at them, both personally and collectively.

Internal turf wars often killed product innovations before they ever saw the light. Consequently, the company was losing, falling behind in every way. And work wasn’t fun for anyone. Stress and anxiety had become a daily experience as meeting after meeting turned into an unhealthy competition, complete with personal attacks and arguments. Every interaction produced winners and losers. Neither the women nor men were happy with each other.

Sound familiar?

The people in the room wanted to do better, together. They had volunteered for a six-month training course focusing on collaboration skills.

They started the first full-day training session early after coffee and pastries. Twelve men and one male facilitator stepped into a circle of chairs in the center of the room and sat down. Twelve women stood outside the circle and listened as the men responded to questions.

The facilitator asked the men the first question: “How do you experience yourselves as men?” Haltingly, the men answered: “Goofy.” “Funny.” “Stubborn.” “Honest.” “Handy.” “Strong.” “Trustworthy.” “Caring.” Some laughed nervously. Then, two more questions: “What would you like the women to know about you? How would you like them to see you?” One by one they responded: “Successful providers.” “Partners.”  “Wise.” “Faithful.” “Smart.” “Boys at heart.”

The women seemed dubious. “Boys at heart”?  Did these women want to work with boys?

The next question asked the men to enter a danger zone: “What are you afraid of?” One man began to speak and then became too emotional to continue. Everyone waited until he could. “I’m afraid of being rejected,” he said. “I’m afraid of being irrelevant and disappointing others. I’m terrified of failing. And I cannot fail at being a man, at protecting my family, my children, my wife.” He began to weep. This was not a boy. The women began to see someone who was not an adversary.   

Then, the women took their seats in the circle, just as the men had done. A female facilitator asked them the same questions. The women wanted the men to see them as “loyal,” “nurturing,” “multi-faceted,” “worthy leaders.” They feared being over-powered by a man, traveling alone, speaking up, being seen as pushy. They, too, feared failing.

These were not problems to be solved; what these men and women said to each other were bridges to a common understanding. There were ways the men and women were the same; there were ways they were different.   

The big work is to replace judging based on unexamined biases with informed understanding, to stop judging and start accepting, to remove the tension that gets in the way of work.

And the only way to do this is to talk it out.

The conversation continued, the group met together every month for a full day. As the training ended, the participants said they felt less guarded, more able to express their feelings and expectations. Both men and women said they had more respect for each other and could engage in a more open dialogue.

Not surprisingly, both men and women said they had become more comfortable at work, and more productive. It’s still in the early days, but I’m certain the business’s performance will improve.

This is the work it takes to build a collaborative culture. This is how we will begin to make it possible for men and women to work as equals, as partners. We need to begin seeing each other as fellow humans.

There are thousands of years of history standing in the way. But I believe that those with the courage to reveal themselves will discover that the things they fear will stop controlling them, and they and their organizations will benefit.

There no better time than now to begin.