Month: November 2018
By Amanda Fajak, Executive Director at Walking the Talk
20 years ago I published an article looking at the link between power, gender and the likelihood of promotion. In that research I uncovered an important finding. Women were associated with emotion and emotion was a characteristic that was not associated with strong leadership. Inversely, men were associated with assertiveness, a characteristic that was associated with strong leadership.
This finding has been reiterated many times over the years with the general consensus being that men are traditionally associated with aggression, risk taking, decisive behaviour and autonomy (what are called agentic qualities) – what have historically been viewed as valuable leadership skills – whereas women are traditionally associated with being kind, caring, humble and relational (what are called communal qualities) – historically less valued leadership skills. These stereotypes of men and women have resulted in historic streaming of men and women into different careers (very broadly in 1998 this meant men traditionally in finance and business and women in nursing and teaching).
Fast forward to 2018 and I was curious as to what has changed. When you look into our business press, there is still evidence of the male hero leader – with the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zukerberg being credited with single handedly changing our lives. However there are also strong women leaders and influencers making the headlines – Michelle Obama, Angela Merkl, Mary Barra (GE), Indra Nooyi (Pepsico), Carolyn McCall (ITV), Theresa May to name a few.
Interestingly, research from as recently as 10 years ago showed that despite an increasing number of women in more powerful roles, women had started to see an association between feminine and leadership characteristics, but men had not.
The latest research by Eagly – who has polled views on gender stereotyping since 1946 – delivered good and bad news. Over time, men have increasingly been seen as more agentic (aggressive, decisive, etc). Over time women have been increasingly seen as more intelligent and competent than men but the stereotype of women being more communal has also increased.
These sorts of findings are a source of frustration to many. On the surface it would appear that we haven’t made much progress in breaking down stereotypes. This is only 1 lens, if we broaden out our perspective another picture might be emerging.
Recent research conducted by Walking the Talk showed that investment professionals are less likely to invest in organisations that are aggressive, overconfident, overly hierarchical – organisations that have more agentic qualities.
Similarly, recent research by the Centre for Creative Leadership listed the following 10 characteristics to be associated with leaders: Honesty; Ability to delegate; Communication; Sense of humour; Confidence; Commitment; Positive attitude; Creativity; Ability to inspire; Intuition. These are more communal qualities.
In the same vein the latest thinking about the leaders that create psychological safety – a critical underpinning to organisation health – includes modesty; humility; openness; supportiveness; inclusive decision making; acknowledging others; emotional intelligence; and accessibility – more communal qualities.
If we look at changing perceptions about leadership it is evident that we are starting to see a significant shift in terms of what good leadership looks like. Could it be that although stereotypes about women have not changed, society has come to a point where it is starting to recognise that feminine characteristics are what it takes for strong leadership?
 Fajak, A. & Haslam, A. (1998). Gender solidarity in hierarchical organizations. British Journal of Social Psychology. 37, 73-94.
 Eagly, A.H.. Wood, W. & Diekman, A.B. (2000). Social role theory of sex differences and similarities: A current appraisal. In T. Eckes and H.M. Trautner (Eds.). The developmental social psychology of gender (pp.123-174). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
 Duehr, E. & Bono. J. (2006). Men, women, and managers: are stereotypes finally changing? Personnel Psychology, 59, 815-846.
The Danish existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once proclaimed that “we live forward, but we understand backward. Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward”. Such thought-provoking aphorisms are just one example of how a discipline which has its origins dating back to over 2000 years ago can still offer foresight into the future. However, despite laying claim to be the oldest discipline in the world and providing the epistemological framework for academia – the influence of philosophy in society has waned in recent times. In 2010, for example, the late Professor Hawking declared that scientists rather than philosophers “have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge”[i]. The decline in philosophy’s significance as a method of inquiry is reflected in the statistics too, with figures from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences showing the number of people obtaining philosophy degrees has fallen by 8.7% since 2012[ii].
Despite diminishing interest in the discipline, the increased importance of human skills in the age of automation and technological advancements means there is a strong argument to be made for the recrudescence of philosophy within all spheres of society, and none more so than within the corporate sphere. With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to explore what the wisdom from some of the greatest philosophers in history can tell us about some of the main themes that are shaping the future of work.
The Stoics and remaining calm in times of accelerated change
It is widely acknowledged within the future of work community that two of the main characteristics that define modern work are volatility and uncertainty. The notion of a lifelong career is seemingly redundant; while there seems to be little consensus on the extent to which technological advancements will threaten the existence of jobs. Thus, to begin this voyage into the relationship between philosophy and the world of work, it seems appropriate to start by exploring the ideas of a group of Athenian scholars who became known as ‘The Stoics’. Widely regarded as the founding fathers of practical philosophy, central to their belief system is the idea that regardless of how unpredictable the world can be, by using our minds correctly we can always be in control of our emotions and impulses, no matter how overwhelming they might be. This mindset is commonly referred to as ‘stoic calm’.
Embracing the virtues of ‘stoicism’ in the modern corporate world unlocks tremendous benefits for organisations experiencing profound change. For instance, a ‘stoic’ individual would show greater resilience to any changes brought about by macro forces such as technological disruption, as they would in theory express a greater willingness to acquiring the skills needed to overcome the challenges such forces present. Similarly, they would be accepting of the fact that the traditional three-stage model of education, work and retirement was obsolescent. Indeed, the stoic individual is one who acknowledges that the only constant in life is change and is therefore also equipped with the emotional skills required to effectively cope with acute forms of disruption.
To this end, stoicism differs from most existing branches of philosophy in one important sense: its purpose is a practical application that can harness the cognitive skills needed for modern work, and as such, it is not a purely intellectual enterprise. Instead, it’s a tool that we can use to become better in our craft, establish more meaningful relationships with colleagues and business partners also allowing us to pragmatically navigate any fundamental disruptions in the labour market. Thus, despite being over 2,000 years old, it is a mindset that, if adopted correctly, could equip modern workers with the mental clarity and resilience required to thrive and prosper in this period of uncertain and accelerated change.
Aristotle, being virtuous and organisational ethics
Keeping with the theme of Athenian scholars, Aristotle, a man regarded as one of the most influential of all philosophers, and his concept of ‘virtuous ethics’, can help provide clarity on the ethical decisions organisations need to make in the future. In essence, Aristotle believed that the framework for being a virtuous person simply consisted of being a good person, and not being a slave to one’s lowest impulses. With recent revelations such as the ‘Cambridge Analytica’ Facebook data scandal, the moral fibre of organisations is under great scrutiny and an adoption of virtuous ethics as a framework can help provide organisations with the necessary moral guidance to make ethically sound decisions.
The concept of ‘virtuous ethics’ not only provides a strong moral framework for organisations to abide by, but it also enables people to fulfil their potential and improve their overall well-being. With recent data indicating that 58% do not trust their colleagues[iii], and 7 out of 10 people not trusting their HR department[iv]; living more virtuously offers a set of ideals that can help galvanise people while simultaneously healing fractured relationships and lead to greater cohesion within organisations.
Nietzsche the Übermensch and high-performance
At first glance, the often misanthropic and pessimistic rhetoric of another great philosopher – Nietzsche has no place in the context of optimising performance. But dig deeper into his philosophy and it becomes clear that the ‘future of high performance’ can learn a lot from his musings. Notably, the concept of the ‘Übermensch’ – translated into English as the ‘Superman’ offers a unique philosophy for how to optimise performance and unlock potential.
For Nietzsche, the idea of Übermensch was more like a vision than a theory; a vision whereby one is emboldened to find the necessary inner strength to overcome any personal insecurities and embrace fear and uncertainty, rather than run away from it. With research demonstrating that creating a space of psychological safety is pivotal for organisations looking to unleash their creative potential; following the principles of Nietzsche’s Übermensch and believing that failure is a necessary stage in the path to fulfilment, can help lay the foundations for people to experiment without fear and come back stronger if they fail.
Perhaps in these increasingly uncertain times when disruptive technology raises profound questions about the skills humans will need to prosper in the future, revisiting the most ancient of disciplines can, in a somewhat paradoxical sense, offer a strong foundation for the cultivation of the uniquely human skills needed to effectively navigate accelerated periods of change. Indeed, to quote Steve Jobs – “technology alone is not enough, it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities that yield the results that make our hearts sing.”
If you would like to discuss further how teaching philosophy can prepare you for the future of work, then please contact Marvin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we meet people, we often think that we can tell a lot about them by the occupation they have. “So, what do you do?” is probably the most common icebreaker I hear, as our work is often regarded as shorthand for explaining to people who we are.[i] But our work identity is not our only identity.
No one person has a single identity; we all have talents, interests, relationships with others, causes we’re passionate about and worldviews that help to make us who we are. In order to embrace our authentic selves throughout our careers, the question researchers are now asking is how to balance the multiple identities that we have. But, after exploring agile people strategies here at Hot Spots Movement, what I think we should be asking is how to integrate them.[ii]
We are increasingly moving away from the 9-5, from which people can clock off and assume their out-of-office identity. With technology enabling a 24/7 culture and people demanding flexible, agile ways of working, our work and our personal lives are becoming more and more interwoven. Instead of allowing our work to monopolise our time and become the core part of our identity (something psychologists call “work-role centrality”) or viewing our work as something that begins and ends and is entirely separate from other aspects of our lives, integrating our identities enables us to be our authentic selves at all times, living and working according to our values and passions.[iii]
The rise in thinking about work-life integration focuses on scheduling time to disconnect and break away from our desks at multiple points throughout the day to ensure that we are maintaining our vitality and sustaining our productivity. Perhaps this can be as easy as using our lunch breaks more effectively, for example, to go to the gym, attend a lecture or catch up on that tv episode you missed. It might be leaving work early to make sure you have dinner with your family or friends and making up that time at home later on.
To fully integrate our work-life identities, we should consider how to reignite or reinforce our connection with work. Instead of perceiving work as something we have to switch off from, how can we make work more meaningful and more aligned with our other identities?
Firstly, we can seek out new projects. When current work isn’t stimulating, we should find new ways to feed our intellectual curiosity. Seeking new challenges and a greater variety within our working day may help us to gain a whole new perspective on what work means to us and what really holds our interest. Similarly, pursuing new skills that we’re passionate about mastering or gain new knowledge on a topic we’ve always been interested in can raise both our engagement and sense of purpose at work.[iv]
Expanding our networks and meeting diverse people can introduce us not only to potential new friends but to potential new futures for ourselves, as these connections may be able to offer advice and guidance as we forge new career paths. Attending external conferences, lectures and events, or reaching out to colleagues from different internal functions are simple ways to integrate our work with our other interests.
To stop your work identity from becoming your only identity, find ways to integrate and align your work with your passions, interests and talents. To talk more about our identities at work, drop me an email at email@example.com
[i] Al Gini, ‘Work, Identity and Self: How We Are Formed by the Work We Do’ (1998).