How 'West Side Story' plays in the workplace
Thursday, May 16, 2013
By Dr. Keith Merron
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
from the pack
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
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.
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.
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
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