Let’s admire female role models, instead of criticizing them

In a recent article a woman lamented that the lack of female role models caused women to strive to be too perfect. She argued that not having enough women to look up to, makes us have an unrealistic view of what successful women should look like. It makes us think we need to be perfect in all aspects.

But I wonder. Maybe the causality is actually the other way around?

I thought back to  my own post about female role models. In which I also complained a female colleague was the wrong example. Ashamed I ask myself: isn’t that the reason why we are so hard on ourselves? Because we criticize all other women, and know they do the same to us?

As a teenager, I was asked who my role model was. My answer, Madonna, brought about grins and raised eyebrows. Years later, when during an application I was asked again, I changed it safely to Mahatma Gandhi. Because I didn’t want people to think I admired a woman who was considered superficial, too outspoken, too ambitious, selfish.

But the truth is, I still admire her. She broke through so many barriers and taboos. She decided on what she wanted and worked really hard to get there. She reinvented herself a couple of times successfully. I love how she always dared to take risks. How she refused to be stopped by fear of failing publicly, or of harsh criticism. She is incredibly brave, creative, energetic and determined. Why would we care about her relationships, or her tough diets.

With male role models, we allow them to be great in one aspect. We downplay their shortcomings, their quirks. We see Steve Jobs as incredibly smart and creative, and just accept he had a rude and harsh leadership style. We revere Mahatma Gandhi’s gentleness, purity and achievements in making the world a better place, but we hardly hear about how unforgiving and authoritative he was to people close to him. Or, that his raw food life style was more extreme than Madonna’s…

With female role models, we expect them to be great in everything. And if they’re not, we point out their flaws, much more than we focus on their brilliance. If we would look at male role models in the same critical way as we look at female role models, we would hardly have role models left.

So let’s admire the female managers or business owners we know. The creative stars we read about. The female politicians or queens ruling our countries. Let us graciously accept their failures. Let us allow them to look fat, or old, or grumpy, whether it’s their off-day or not. Let us acknowledge they aren’t perfect mothers (as nobody is).

Let’s focus on what they’re great at. On why they got so far. Let’s revel in their qualities. And see them as a great example, a role model to admire. Once we start doing that, we will suddenly have a lot more female role models to learn from.

Is your organization united, or does it feel like a bunch of departments thrown together?

A number of people, who didn’t know each other, were randomly assigned a green or a red badge. They were asked to sit together with people wearing the same colored badge. Then they were asked to describe their own group, as well as the other group. An impossible task, as they didn’t know each other at all. However, that didn’t stop them from describing the group they belonged too in much more favorable terms than the other group.

In another study, people were asked to describe the people living in their street as well as people living in a parallel street. Also for the people in their city as well as people living in another city, and then people in their country as well as in another country. In all three cases, people described distinct differences between ‘their’ group of people, and ‘the other’ group, describing their own group in a more positive way.

Many similar experiments have been conducted. All showing our strong bias to view our own group in a more positive light than other groups. Even when we don’t know anyone, we are strongly inclined to rate people in our group more favorably than those outside the group.

Why does this happen? Well, for one, it is a basic human need to want to belong somewhere. Another important cause: we like to view ourselves in a positive light. Therefore, unconsciously, we imagine we are part of the superior group, in order to raise our self-esteem.

Although this has a social function, there are also negative outcomes. Obvious examples are racism and discrimination. But there are many more less obvious effects, still with big impact. Look around in the workplace. Many people feel their department has its own distinct identity, which they consider to be superior to other departments. They favor colleagues in their own department. They believe the other departments are not doing as well as they do. And soon these small beliefs hinder the cooperation between departments. Confirming the already slightly negative opinion they have about each other.

For an organization to work well together, we need to address this group effect in the workplace. There are several strategies to reduce tension between departments, and let them work more effectively together. To name a few:

  • Ensure people are in contact with each other frequently. People who know each other better, realize the differences are not that big and they build sympathy for each other. Put people from different departments together, stimulate interdepartmental job moves, communicate about the different departments, create an open office space for several departments together.
  • Make people feel part of a bigger group than just their department. Develop an organization identity, to which people can relate. This reduces their identification with their own department.
  • Emphasize and stimulate interdependence, ensure departments can’t do their job without relying on others. When people need each other, they reduce their negative view of another group.

Realize that human nature prevents departments from working well together. There’s no easy solution. It needs attention. But the benefits of a smooth cooperation between all parts of an organization are worth it.

Leadership by example gone wrong

Have you experienced leaders who proudly say they walk the talk? And then do any (or more) of the following:

  • complaining employees should have more entrepreneurial spirit, while incorporating more bureaucracy and authorization controls to be able to have a grip on what is happening in the organization
  • saying they always listen to the input of employees, but talking all the time during meetings, interrupting employees every time they start speaking
  • being strict with employees on costs, implementing several cost cutting measures, while negotiating for their new company car to be bigger
  • micro managing while exclaiming they want their people to show more ownership
  • saying they value different opinions, while vehemently disagreeing with colleagues all the time

Most of us are all too familiar with these examples.

Why? It mostly has to do with two basic psychological principles:

  • Almost all of us often overestimate our abilities. Research has repeatedly shown a huge majority (90%+) usually thinks they are better than average at certain tasks. This effect is often stronger for tasks we’re not experienced in.
  • We also often accept or pardon our own mistakes, while we accept much less of others. So a manager might explain away his own little mistakes, but others observing the manager won’t forgive those mistakes so easily. They’ll also think the manager has double standards, as he forgives himself but doesn’t let others get away so easily.

So how can we really walk the talk?

  • Ask yourself what kind of leader you want to be, and what kind of behavior you need to show to be that leader. Then check in with yourself a few times a day, and ask whether you are showing that behavior.
  • Actively seek feedback, to check whether your good intentions are actually perceived that way.
  • When you complain about others, ask yourself what your role has been. What was it in your behavior, that caused the other to behave that way? “When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you.”
  • When you realize you are making excuses for not walking the talk, stop yourself. Correct your behavior, or tell people you will do better next time. People don’t mind when you make a mistake once in a while, but they need to see that you realize it, and are willing to correct it.

Or even more soundproof: don’t make claims to what kind of wonderful leader you are. Just be one…