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How 'West Side Story' plays in the workplace

Thursday, May 16, 2013   (0 Comments)
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By Dr. Keith Merron

I recently saw my sixth grade daughter perform in the musical "West Side Story,” an enchanting, but painful story. The play was an early attempt to depict the beauty and tragedy of gang life. To me, it is a powerful statement about how boys and men of all ages tend toward a pack mentality.

As a young man, growing up in male culture, I learned rather quickly about the unspoken rules of male culture. There are many, including:

  • Might is right.
  • There is a pecking order and it needs to be respected.
  • It’s a dog eat dog world.
  • Take care of your own kind.
  • Winning is everything.
  • Treat women as sex objects. 

But, as in "West Side Story,” the biggest unspoken rule of all is: You don’t speak against the gang. In practical and emotional terms, it means you don’t confront the pack. I remember well the feelings of disgust I felt in the locker room as a teenager when boys spoke with disrespect toward women. I felt very out of place at the time and didn’t participate. Yet, I didn’t speak up. Instead, I had a powerful feeling that you don’t step out against the pack, no matter what. No one told me this was the rule, but it was obvious. The rare courageous young man who did speak up was made fun of and ostracized by the testosterone-laden adolescents. So, no matter how mortified I was with the behavior and attitude I witnessed, I could not bring myself to speak up against it.

This feeling of never going against the pack is deeply ingrained in the psyche of men. Consider the behavior we see of men in the boardroom or in key meetings. Gone, for the most part, is the rude, disrespectful behavior of the men toward women. Instead, I see men behaving consistent with a set of rules for how decisions are made and problems solved. These rules are not written or, often, not even seen, because they seem so natural to the way men live. They include: speak in short sentences, focus narrowly, don’t self-reflect, don’t act vulnerably, keep your eye on the prize (the goal), don’t apologize and act more confident than you really are. These rules are rarely questioned and certainly not challenged because men won’t confront the pack.

I suspect women feel the same fear of challenging that mentality, but in a different way. What they seem to fear is the possibility of losing an opportunity if they speak up, or being subtly or not so subtly excluded.

But men feel that and something more, a very primal feeling of being rejected from the pack, never again fitting in. As a result, you rarely see men challenging other men in public. If you do, watch their eyes. They will often flit around, quickly surveying other men to see if what they did is going to cause irreparable self harm.

Breaking from the pack

I was recently in a meeting where a bunch of men were speaking about the importance of competition within the company. They were saying, in short, that only the strong survive and this mentality helps the company grow and weeds out the weaker players.

There were about seven of us in the conversation, and three were speaking confidently in their view. The rest remained silent. I found myself thinking very differently about it and then that feeling of hesitation crept in. Should I say something? What will they think? Finally, I spoke up about the power of collaboration and how it is perhaps an even better model for leadership and organization. The quieter members spoke up in kind and a rather healthy dialogue ensued. "Whew!” the teenager in me thought. I was not ostracized. And the wise adult in me felt solid and trusting. In the end, I believe I earned some respect by speaking up — but it wasn’t easy. I had to fight that primal feeling of the potential of being outcast.

There are many reasons why the glass ceiling exists and why the dominant culture of decision making is male driven. But perhaps the biggest reason of all is the unwritten rule that you don’t challenge your own kind.

So I tip my hat to all men who speak out against the prevailing norms of business that are outdated, limiting or simply don’t work anymore. I pay my respects to the men who have the courage of their convictions, who choose not to hire in their own image, but instead to broaden their horizons and the horizons of all. These men are not just doing the right thing, but have the guts to do it at the risk of that primal feeling of being excluded.

I once heard it said that a leader is someone who must be willing to go it alone and then never go it alone. This is the leader I seek to find, support and hold up. This is the kind of leader that is slowly stepping forward. And over time, these very same leaders will eventually populate roles of leadership throughout the business world.

Dr. Keith Merron is a senior associate at Barbara Annis & Associates, part of a team challenging the prevailing paradigms of business. An author of a number of books on leadership and organization life, he is co-authoring, along with Barbara Annis, a seminal book on gender relations in the workplace called The Gender Intelligent Organization. He also writes a column about conscious leadership for Real Leaders.

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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