How to break up the old boys’ club in your office

How about this club instead?
How about this club instead?
Image: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
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Once upon a time, the workplace was very homogeneous. With women’s place in the home, and little ethnic diversity, the workplace was dominated by white men. And their judgments, styles and perspectives created the workplace culture and narrative that we still experience today. The Old Boys’ Club is where business gets done. The network where the unwritten rules define the insiders and the outsiders. The standards that decide who is successful and who is not.

But today, when 36% of the US workforce is already multicultural, and 47% are women, the composition of employees looks different than it used to. So why should we still play by the rules and expectations of the Old Boys’ Club?

Recognizing leadership potential

What do you think of when you think about a leader? Strong, direct, confident, aggressive, powerful and charismatic in a take-no-prisoners environment? But Lina, a brilliant, high-performing Japanese American, is physically diminutive and speaks with a high-pitched lilting up-tone. She thoughtfully leads through consensus and is powerfully influential through her indirect communication and wide networks. She builds loyalty and commitment in her teams. Lina will be passed over this year for an expected high-level promotion and assignment. Why? It’s vague: somehow she doesn’t fit the mold of what senior management sees as high leadership potential. She’s a great team player, but where is her passion, her fire? She is gentle and doesn’t command immediate attention when she enters a room. She doesn’t talk about herself, and she doesn’t always speak up in meetings. She seems passive and lets other initiate conversations.

To fully develop leaders, don’t be immediately impressed by swagger, firm handshakes, and conventional displays of confidence. If you see your employees performing well, yet are demonstrating their leadership in ways that are different than you’re used to, find out about their approach (pros and cons) instead of judging it. Then, give positive feedback and provide coaching to nurture his or her continued development as a leader. Ask yourself:

  • What do you lose when you don’t question your assumptions about “leadership potential?”
  • Are you basing your judgments on behaviors and expectations on styles that you are familiar with?
  • Are you tied to a “right way vs. wrong way” of thinking about styles?

Where is your “water cooler”?

Back in the day, the water cooler was where informal conversations happened—when people were on a break, casually drifting between professional and personal topics.

George is a new sales rep on your team and has caught the eye of the director, who has taken him and a few other team members under his wing. They have built up a rapport on the golf course and some after-work happy hours. During meetings, they always seem to be nudging each other with knowing winks, laughing at inside jokes. On a key client engagement, George stumbles on a deliverable that almost causes the company to lose the account. The director reprimands him in private, and quickly moves on, letting George take on a new key account. George has made a mistake that is part of his development. But you notice that Darrell, an African American male on the same team, made a similar mistake, and subsequently is given quite a bit of busy work on secondary accounts. His input is often brushed off in meetings and his interaction with the director is cold and informal.

  • Where do your key informal conversations and interactions happen? This is most often where relationships are built and decisions are made. It could be the lunch room, an online chat forum, sporting or entertainment events or weekly happy hour.
  • Is anyone being excluded by these environments? Why? Do you write them off as just not understanding how to engage? Or do you help them engage, or find alternatives for them to become “insiders?”
  • Do you notice that some people are given special considerations or privileges? Are others made to defend their presence and participation constantly?
  • Are you trying to be exclusive? Be honest. Many prestigious groups pride themselves on having “secret handshake” that is meant to keep out the outsiders, and some kind of hazing process to qualify the insiders. Who are you keeping out and why? What are you losing by doing so?

Being a Mentor or Sponsor

Studies show that career success depends on the presence of good advice, feedback and those in leadership who can open doors for you. Most successful leaders can point to at least a few good mentors that have helped them along their path, and sponsors who have given them key opportunities and rewards. Like George and his boss, it is common for high-ranking execs and managers to mentor someone who reminds them of themselves—a “mini-me.” And this is a very natural thing, since we are naturally drawn toward people who are most like ourselves. But this kind of system, left to its own devices, will continue to perpetuate the dominant culture and style; it is not one that will allow for diverse leaders to be developed and brought into the ranks. How are you choosing your mentees and those you choose to champion? Are they “just like you?” What diamond in the rough have you passed over?

Of course, your workplace environment may not be a typical “Old Boys’ Club” dominated by white male culture. But think about the traits and reward system of your dominate culture. Who is on the inside? Who is being excluded? And what are you losing, individually and organizationally because of that.

Preparing ourselves for the workforce realities requires us to abolish the Old Boys’ Club, and to lay a new foundation—one where diverse perspectives, values and ideas are valued and leveraged, not just tolerated, and one where everyone can become an insider (that includes white males!). In order to do that, we have to be willing to challenge our assumptions, be curious about other styles, and adapt our familiar behaviors to meet others partway.