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Working with women: How one man lost his one-track mind

Wednesday, November 06, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Keith Merron

Years ago, I was invited to co-lead a workshop on leadership for 30 women. My co-facilitator was a woman.

The six-day experience was extraordinary. It marked the first time I worked exclusively with women in such a large group and I found myself time and again needing to alter my natural style to meet the needs of the group.

Like many men, I have a train-track mind. I fixate on an agenda and feel quite comfortable and even satisfied when we get through the agenda on time. Like most men, my goal-oriented, stepwise-thinking mind loves to establish agreements, set targets and stay on agenda. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I do. But this did not seem to be what the women wanted.

Theirs was hardly a train-track approach. Conversations would take a different path than expected and the amount of social engagement as a part of the process was, for them, a natural part of the learning process, but for me, a train-track derailment of monumental proportions.

So often, I wanted to say, "This is not part of the agenda,” or "This is taking us off track.” But some little voice inside told me to hold off and just let it unfold. Had I intervened as often as I felt the urge to get the discussion back on track, I would have become a bloody annoyance, to say the least. More importantly, I would have been trying to impose my train-track mind onto their field of experience and would have likely been rejected.

Instead, I practiced patience and deep inquisitiveness. I treated this group as a whole different culture and sought to understand its fascinating norms. Here is what I saw as I stayed with the flow:

  • What first appeared as derailers to me were simply part of the larger exploration for the women. They were not side tracks at all. Seemingly disconnected side comments (you know, the kind where a thought triggers another thought which triggers another thought) were part of the larger quilt work.
  • Social conversations kept the group together. There emerged a jazz-like exploration that created a harmonic resonance. 
  • Personal needs got expressed and addressed as part of the natural flow. Personal needs were not interrupters at all. They were an integrated part of the whole. 
  • Confronting one another directly was not part of the system in the same way I was used to confronting or being confronted. It happened, but rarely. Instead, participants made suggestions, offered input and invited inquiry.
  • There was a natural support system that was unabashed. Women took care of each other and of the whole, with little fanfare, and yet with great heart.
  • Feelings were expressed very naturally and there was a sense of ease and caring. The women seemed to just naturally know what to do.

This was a tribe, very different than the tribe than the male tribe I grew up in where agendas were set, where we controlled outcomes, and where the alpha male got his way. Hierarchies were natural in my tribe, and focus and direct communications the norm.

At first I found the behavior of this different tribe quite enervating. It did not produce direct and immediate outcomes. It did not match the way I understood learning to happen. And it certainly didn’t follow the design.

My inner voice wanted to shout, "Stop it, stay focused!” But thankfully, I kept my frustration quiet and observed the cultural norms that emerged. Over time, I could see the participants learn. It certainly wasn’t at my pace or the way in which I was used to, but it happened nonetheless.

To my surprise, the participants reported that it was a rich and welcome learning experience. Magical moments occurred along the way, so much so, that it was as if the learning happened between the white spaces of conversation.

Now, I realize that women in business, especially toward the top, know the rules of male behavior quite well and have had to learn to adapt to those rules to fit in They will likely remain forever uncomfortable, as I was for six days.

I envision a time where we will learn how to mutually adapt and take advantage of the natural differences that exist between the genders and learn the wisdom of knowing which direction to take. We will be all the better for it.

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, along with Barbara Annis, on leadership and organization life, he is co-authoring 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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