Monday, November 8, 2010

A Female Approach to Change

by Tracey Collins

Recently I've come to observe an interesting dichotomy between those that succeed and those that fail at change.  I'd like to call it the male vs. the female approach.  I was reminded of this as I watched last week’s midterm election – an election that was, once again, very much about “change.”

With the downfall of Pelosi, Whitman and Fiorina the buzz out there today is that women candidates on both sides of the table did dismally.  Yet at a local level, women were seated and unseated with less of a focus on gender -- with an exception perhaps in my own neck of the woods where Maine and New Hampshire will become the first neighboring states to be represented by four women in the Senate (Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte).

I’ve also observed that in most cases, women in the political or corporate world don male personas to compete and climb the political ladder.  This type of “kill or be killed” campaigning successfully contributed to a stress-based furor that caught a lot of people’s attention at the polls – but only time will tell if it has an impact. We’ve already seen this type of fear-based communication beginning to backfire in the today’s corporate cultures.

Fight or Nurture

The old school, "patriarchal" response to stress is to either stand and fight, or flee – the same can be said during stressful change.  But when it comes to organizational change, I've never seen either of these responses work out well.  In the long run, fighting a change most often leads to more stress.  I'm sure many of us can relate to an angry manager whose knee-jerk reaction to a change addressed a symptom but not the problem; often resulting in further heartache for everyone involved.  Or, we may also be familiar with the passive aggressive counterpart, who flees in the face of stress, becoming ineffective because he or she avoids a problem, only to have it grow bigger.

A  2000 UCLA study on women and friendship  suggests that women respond to stress differently with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause women to "nurture and tend" during times of stress.  I find this "matriarchal" approach to be very intriguing – especially when it comes to the stress of changing behaviors.  Take for example last spring’s reports of women in Kenya staging a week long Sex Strike in protest to what they viewed as a failure of leadership to curb the infighting and the chaos in the aftermath of war.  Now you may ask: What does a sex strike in Kenya have to do with the Tea Party elections?  Well nothing really except that both groups collectively created a community movement to get their message heard.

So perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in the nurturing intention behind the idea of a community movement.  After all, in both the healthcare and business environment, advocates of personal change have embraced a specific "nurture and tend" approach called the support group method to great effect.  From drug addiction to weight-loss and the management of diabetes, support groups are becoming a new tool for helping people change behaviors and attitudes with great results.

Now let me be clear, all men don't use the "patriarchal" approach and I can think of a number of female leaders who display a fight and flee mentality in the face of stress.  But for argument’s sake, how would this constructive "nurturing" approach to change look in a communications context?

Most "old school" organizations have come to realize the dominant push-and-tell communications styles are not effective.  A study by the Larkin Group: Communicating Big Change Using Small Communications advocates face-to- face communication as the most effective way to manage a change. The new manager sits down to talk about a change in a supportive, open and honest way.  President Obama used this style to great effect in the 2008 election and many corporate executives from 3M to Procter & Gamble are known for their ability to envision, communicate and enlist the support of their teams.

And that is what I believe the female approach to change is all about:

  1. Envision the change you want to see.
  2. Talk about it, talk about it…then talk about it some more.
  3. Instead of posturing and assigning blame, take accountability for the change and help one another to grow and nurture it.
So what if our political and corporate women leaders actually embraced their collective feminine strengths?  You see it happening in support circles all over the country like the Maine Women’s Fund.  It will be interesting to see what happens in the wake of this year’s elections.  And perhaps we will have to look outside our own borders to places like Kenya or to the female leaders in Germany, Canada, Ireland, Finland, Brazil, Argentina and Chile (where women all hold the highest leadership office)  to see how a female approach to change will influence and shape our world.

Tracey Collins is guest-writer for The SmartGirls Way.  She is President and Founder of Mirror Group Consulting; a consultancy focused on content, executive coaching and change management.  

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