It’s time for women leaders to bring out hidden powers

This week’s Coach’s Questions Blog is written by Padraig Coach, Eve Gaudet.

I recently had the privilege of hosting Day 1 of the 2018 Wisdom Mentoring Program, an event held by the Women’s Executive Network. Given carte blanche to develop a full leadership day, my intention was to provoke the attendees to realize how their leadership is critical in light of three massive and key cultural shifts changing our world.

The attendees were women who hold senior or executive positions in primarily male-dominated industries. Think: oil and gas, manufacturing, and international consulting firms.

These smart and outspoken leaders patiently indulged me in painting the picture of what’s underpinning the confluence of change that is happening now and expected to accelerate over the next two to five years. This will have an impact on not only our work, but also the ability of businesses to adapt and how we as a society choose to respond.

I’m talking about Industry 4.0, the intergenerational workplace, and #TimesUp.

Three key cultural shifts

If you don’t know much about these three key cultural shifts or perhaps haven’t even heard about them, I’ll help you out.

Industry 4.0 is the first shift, and this alone will change the world in ways we can’t even imagine. Think big data, artificial intelligence, and self-driving cars. Essentially, Industry 4.0 is the bridging of physical industrial assets and digital technologies in so-called cyber-physical systems. It’s already here; humans just aren’t ready for it.

We’ve been talking about the second key shift, the intergenerational workplace, for over ten years.  Now we have members of Generation Z filling positions. Millennials expect flexibility, diversity, and ethical business practices. Generation Z expects the same and more: mainly, a self-actualized workplace culture. The Gen Z employee wants regular feedback, access to all levels of the company, and to feel personally valued. This means instead of power situated top/down, they expect power that flows down, up, and across.

#TimesUp is the third significant phenomenon. For centuries women have been relegated to subservient positions. It’s taken women of the Hollywood machine to break the silence about inappropriate behaviour both men and women have always known exists. #TimesUp is the recognition that women will not tolerate inequality and harassment in any industry. This will have huge impacts on the ways we communicate and who sits in the C-Suite offices.

Time to bring out hidden powers

With these three key shifts on the table, I proposed it’s time for women leaders to bring out their “hidden powers.” I’m talking about the characteristics we have in spades but don’t necessarily bring to our work. The women attendees dug in and came up with lists of values, behaviours, and ways of being they don’t show up with at work.

I was met with myriad complaints of situations such as, “my male colleagues speak over me in meetings,” “I’m called aggressive if I stand up for myself,” and, “it’s so hard being the only female at the board table.”

I don’t doubt the challenges these women face. What I’m suggesting is to change how we, as women, show up. We may work in male-defined structures, but if we consider the three key cultural shifts in front of us, we have compelling reasons to change the book on leadership.

We’re moving into a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Businesses will embrace agility, speed of change will be the norm, and innovation and failure will be paramount. Employees will need to feel they matter and that their work has meaning.

Four themes emerged through the hidden powers discussion:

  • Empathy
  • Inclusion
  • Vulnerability
  • Resilience

Now, I’m not suggesting men don’t have these same qualities – they do!

In a recent HBR article, authors Tinsley and Ely pinpoint that it’s actually organizational structures, company practices, and patterns of interaction that position men and women differently, creating systematically different experiences for them.

In essence, we’ve created narratives over the years that reinforce gender stereotypes; the real explanation for any sex differences that exist in the workplace is context.

With three massive shifts in our midst, it’s time to let go of ancient directive management behaviours and bureaucratic structures where few hold the power. It’s critical to replace them with values and behaviours that support, not disenfranchise, people.  

Since the 1990s Daniel Goleman and others have been proselytizing Emotional Intelligence. The idea that we need leaders with self-awareness, empathy, and self-regulation has taken hold, and yet, it’s not enough.

For women in leadership positions, stepping up and promoting their hidden powers will generate learning for both genders. This can influence a shift in context, thinking, and behaviour from gender bias and stereotyping to one of inclusion and equality.

As we embark on the agile corporate landscape, we’ll need an antidote to the lightning speed, innovate/fail/adapt/change processes of cross-functional teams. We’ll need teams supported by senior leaders who are not only empathic, but who are vulnerable, support failures and successes, understand and support inclusivity, and create climates of resilience.

We may be heading into a future of artificial intelligence and robots, but as the women of the Wisdom Mentoring Program discovered, it will take very human actions and qualities to support people into this new era.

Coach’s Questions

Where do you see evidence of the Industry 4.0, the intergenerational workplace, and #TimesUp shifts? What as yet hidden powers could you bring to your work? What’s required for your company’s leadership to meet these cultural changes in the workplace?

Eve Gaudet, PCC, is an executive coach with a passion for supporting others. She is known for her caring and direct style in working with her clients. She has been with Padraig since 2014 and also has her own firm, Eve of Change.

How to have a performance conversation (today)

We’ve talked before about how to turn difficult conversations into essential conversations. You know, the times when you should talk with someone about something but you just don’t want to get into the discussion because it could get ugly.

Unfortunately, staying quiet to avoid conflict or upset can backfire. Not only can things get worse, too often we’ll snap and react poorly when things are even messier.

At work, the difficult discussions many of us avoid or sidestep are related to performance issues with team members. It’s a common issue among our coaching clients, and it’s understandable.

It’s much nicer to talk about good things than to deliver bad news. There are times we might not want to hurt feelings or add to someone’s struggles. Or we know what we have to say could ignite outrage (and who needs more drama?!).

Many leaders hope team members will read between the lines, take cues from conversations or peers, or that issues will resolve themselves. Unfortunately, these soft approaches aren’t usually effective.

Almost always, it’s better to have those conversations before things have festered, blown up, or derailed. If we want things to change quickly, we need to tackle the issues directly.

Are you cringing a little at the thought of having this type of conversation and being completely truthful with the person? I want you to consider an effective performance conversation as an opportunity to change things. It might be that there are problems that can be addressed (and resolved!), or it might end up that you’ll both agree a different role would be beneficial (within or outside of the organization). There are countless possible outcomes and resolutions, but they’re only going to be explored if you initiate the process by facing what you would rather not talk about. Contrary to popular belief, no news is not always good news!

Having an essential conversation is the starting point for next steps, which is so much better for everyone than hoping the issues go away.

Here are some steps to alleviate your dread and help you have an effective performance conversation.

Take time to reflect and consider the situation objectively

While we don’t want you to avoid the difficult performance conversations, we also don’t advise you jump in without a bit of contemplation, for a few reasons:

You want to strike the right tone. You might be annoyed and frustrated – perhaps even angry – but you can’t storm in and expect what you have to say to be received well (and heard). Similarly, if you’re waffling and walk in smiling and ask brightly, “How’s it going?” then you’re not being honest and will either be met with suspicion or have to redirect the conversation.

You need to be very focused on the performance challenge, not the person. It’s too easy to lapse into, “you should” or “you’ve got to” and that will result in the person feeling defensive (which doesn’t help resolve anything). It’s more respectful to be honest and approach the conversation as an opportunity to ask about what’s happening that is causing the problem, because you want to help this team member be successful.

You need some very concrete facts and examples to share. Vague generalizations about what’s wrong (“Sam, you’ve got to step up your game!”) will not be productive. You need specific information about the issue, such as, “this report has not been filled out completely and the deadline for X has not been met.”

Use a problem-solving approach

It’s one thing to talk about problems, it’s another thing entirely to figure out the root causes. Preparing to talk about performance and gathering your facts before jumping into the conversation gives you time to consider possible barriers.

In my experience, when someone is having a performance issue it’s either related to motivation or ability. It’s rare that anyone sets out for work in the morning with the desire to be bad at their job. As team leaders, we may have ideas about the root causes, but it’s wise to consider we may not fully realize the challenges our team members are facing, or the things they misunderstood.

If you suspect motivation is causing performance issues, here are some points to ponder:

  • Is this team member disgruntled, generally unmotivated, or burned out? How you resolve these issues will vary, but understanding why someone is not a high performer is key to resolving things. Your response to someone who is angry or resentful and passive-aggressively not performing well will be different from that to someone who is bored or unchallenged and different again for someone who is overwhelmed.
  • Is it possible this team member feels unappreciated? Some of us are very motivated to work hard when there are rewards (either emotional – praise – or financial). Feeling recognized for past effort might jumpstart some hard work.
  • Are there consequences in place for poor performance? There are people who will push boundaries if they don’t feel there are consequences for missing deadlines or submitting substandard or incomplete work. You may need to have clearly set milestones and well-defined consequences for future work with your team so there aren’t loopholes.  If you have set deadlines in the past, have you upheld them? If not, having a conversation to be clear you are now going to (and then, doing so) may help a lot.

If your gut tells you that ability is having an impact on performance, here are some things to consider:

  • Does this team member have the required resources to achieve success? You need to honestly consider all aspects, from the timeline and budget to required supplies, technology, and human resources. You can address the need for additional supports (and also the need to come to you earlier to talk about this kind of barrier!).
  • Is it possible the work assigned is beyond this team member’s skill set and ability? This might be a time for a coach approach to leadership to help a normally high-performing team member stretch to meet a challenge. Or, it might be time for some mentoring and education.
  • Are you certain the performance isn’t arising out of some sort of miscommunication or misunderstanding? For example, if the deliverables, goals, or deadlines weren’t clearly defined, the result could appear to be poor performance when in reality the team member faced confusion. (Of course, it’s also possible the team member was confused and should have sought clarification!)
  • Is there some other hurdle that has had an impact on performance? Perhaps the team member is stalled, waiting for input from other stakeholders or clients. Sometimes there are issues with collaboration with other team members that could use some intervention.

Prepare for the essential conversation

Now that you’ve thought through the situation, it’s time to prepare for the actual conversation. We have an essential conversation toolkit that you can use to approach any tough topic with courage, compassion, and skill.

As you work through the steps of our model, your goal will be to strengthen the relationship with the team member and solve the problem.

What’s important is starting this essential conversation off the right way. For this reason, we focus on the opening statement. For this process, we’re going to:

  1. Name the issue – what is wrong and how long it’s been an issue (focus on the single most important issue to resolve)
  2. Give a specific example – without getting into the emotional response to the issue, give one factual example of the issue
  3. Describe the effects of the issue – explore how bad things are, how the issue is affecting you and others (and the results arising from it), and your emotional reaction to the impact of this
  4. Clarify what is at stake – what will likely happen if nothing changes, what’s at stake for you and others, and what is your emotional reaction to possible outcomes
  5. What is my contribution to this issue – have you contributed to the problem, could you have done or said anything sooner, or have you made assumptions about anything
  6. Describe the ideal outcome – consider the impact resolving this issue will have for you, for others, and for the team member as well as what your emotional response could be
  7. Invite the team member to respond – and (this is critical!) listen to understand with empathy

It’s important to note — planning out the seven steps above might take you 30 minutes but when delivering them in the conversation with the employee, they should take only 60-90 seconds!

Once you’ve done this pre-work, our toolkit has a contract page for you to complete. Here you’ll define actions that you will take (that’s right – you and not the team member!) and commit to yourself, a date.

Things we want you to consider include:

  • The most useful step you could take to move this issue toward resolution
  • Possible roadblocks and your strategy to get past them
  • Any other steps you could commit to take

We also cover how to avoid common errors people make when trying to have an essential conversation. (Check out our complete essential conversation toolkit here!)

The Coach’s Questions:

When have you avoided or put off performance conversations? Can you think of times your approach caused a performance conversation to sour? What do you think you’ll do differently with your next performance conversation (hint: it might be to use our toolkit to walk you through the whole thing?)