Many professionals seeking to progress their career believe they must make a trade-off between climbing the corporate ladder and staying true to their personal values. At the Centre for Synchronous Leadership we’ve been studying employee perceptions of corporate success for the past two years, using a combination of qualitative and quantitative research. Our latest readout of UK survey data shows that only 40% of respondents are confident it is possible to be effective at office politics without compromising their values. For middle managers this figure drops to 26%.
Those lacking this confidence are at risk of losing faith in their organisation and its leadership. The Public Relations Consultants Association’s (PCRA) Britain at Work survey from July 2015 indicates that more than half of UK workers would not recommend their organisation to others, with 15% stating that they are ashamed of where they work. Similarly, the CIPD’s 2013 Megatrends report reveals that 31% of employees distrust their organisation’s senior management. This group is also less likely to feel aligned with organisational values.
A costly choice
So how do employees who feel they must choose between their values and their success deal with this dilemma? Almost half strongly indicate that they would rather become victims of office politics than compromise their values. This suggests that a substantial portion may simply ‘opt out’ – disengaging from the quest to align their potential with the needs of the organisation.
The most extreme form of ‘opting out’ is company exit. Britain at Work indicates that 39% of UK workers would leave their job tomorrow if they had another option, and the cost of staff turnover in the UK has been estimated by Oxford Economics to be £30,000 per employee, costing the economy £4.13 billion per year.
The other half of employees – who are more inclined to ‘lean in’ – do so with the understanding that their full selves are not welcome at work. According to our research, they are also more likely to believe others will view them as losers unless they succeed in their career, and weak unless they ‘play the game’. Disconnected from their internal compass, the desire for power and status becomes increasingly motivated by a fear of not having it.
The ego behaviours that this fear-based approach to success generates can become quite toxic. Antagonistic or manipulative responses that initially emerge to cope with aggressive colleagues are all-too-easily legitimised as what it takes to survive. In a world of winners and losers, colleagues who were previously collaborators may become competitors. What starts off as clever manoeuvring can quickly escalate, contributing to an atmosphere of distrust. As those who use such tactics appear to progress up the hierarchy, the paradigm of needing to make a trade-off is further perpetuated.
The CIPD’s April 2015 study on workplace conflict provides insight into the scale of the problem. According to results, 38% of UK employees experienced unproductive relationship conflict at work last year. The trigger in most cases was a perceived lack of respect, and the impact was stress and a drop in commitment. In a similar CIPD study from 2008 HR professionals reported warring egos and personality clashes to be the number one cause of workplace conflict. Tough at the Top?, a 2014 large-scale study of resilience among UK employees, found the stress of managing difficult workplace relationships/politics to be the biggest drain on employee resilience. In 2013 the cost of work-related stress to the UK economy was estimated to be £6.5 billion.
The breaking point
As a coach and leadership consultant, I encounter numerous executives whose experience of ‘leaning in’ has led them to a breaking point. It is worth noting that these experiences tend to differ based on gender.
For men the pressure to acquire power and status is reinforced from all directions, including family expectations. The tactics they have employed to ‘play the game’ may very well be working. Hence their conflict is often an internal one. Many men feel constrained by the exaggerated image of masculinity they are expected to project. They are tired of asserting their authority and pretending to have all the answers. They crave deeper connections at work, for their own sensitivities to be acknowledged, and to feel supported by colleagues. Nonetheless they fear that if they show their softer side they will be judged harshly and lose the competitive advantage they have worked so hard to establish.
For women the process of jockeying for power is often more stressful and less rewarding. Research shows that little girls are far less likely than little boys to engage in this behaviour in the playground. Moreover, we are taught from childhood that ego-oriented behaviour is to be expected in boys and mostly discouraged in girls. Consequently, when women ‘lean in’ to look after their own interests or to assert their authority we view them as abrasive, strident, and off-putting. We prefer women to be kind, nurturing, and sensitive – conforming to our deeply-rooted stereotypes. And yet when they exhibit these behaviours at work they are seen as less competent and lacking gravitas.
Linguist Janet Holmes famously coined the phrase “the tightrope of impression management” to describe the seeming impossibility of this balancing act. If women shift their weight on the tightrope too far to the left they are ‘pushovers’, too far to the right and they are ‘pushy’. Either label can be used to deny them power. Catalyst’s 2011 study on The Myth of the Ideal Worker provides compelling evidence of the unfair playing field this creates. Findings reveal that although the most proactive female ‘players’ use similar strategies to their male counterparts they are half as likely to make it to senior executive or CEO level.
This leaves many ambitious women feeling frustrated, demoralised, and itching to escape. They have invested significant time and energy in playing along with the boys, only to feel uninspired, unappreciated, and – most pernicious of all – unfairly judged. It is no wonder that some of the most talented and ambitious women politely excuse themselves from the corporate world following maternity leave. Babies have a wonderful way of bringing us back to our humanity, and the game of fighting ego battles seems less appealing.
The possibility of tightrope walking
Something needs to change. In a world of increasing interdependence, if we permit competitive ego forces to define success we will all fail. The time has come for the business world to evolve so that employees at all levels and of all backgrounds can feel more in sync with themselves at work, as well as with their colleagues, their organisation, and society.
It is tempting to declare the unfair standard we hold women accountable to as a problem to be solved. However, I believe it is an opportunity to be leveraged. Rather than helping women to step down from the tightrope we should support men in stepping up to join them. Self-promotion, negotiation, and a willingness to challenge must always be balanced with sensitivity, openness, and a willingness to learn from others. These things are not ‘nice-to-haves’; nor are they signs of incompetence. They are basic requirements in an era of transparency, connection, and empowerment where trust has become the new currency.
The good news is that 40% of our sample strongly believes it is possible to walk the tightrope. They are more likely to associate visibly successful leaders with authenticity and a willingness to uphold personal values, and less likely to associate them with game playing. They feel more encouraged to provide feedback and less pressured to conform. Perhaps as a consequence they express greater organisational loyalty. This group is more motivated to aspire to senior levels, and less driven by fear of what others will think. Finally, they consider themselves to be more savvy in office politics – hence skill may also be relevant in setting them apart.
These findings are consistent with my experience helping numerous leaders to master the art of tightrope walking. Key for making this journey is cultivating an entrepreneurial sense of possibility. Leaders must shift from seeing themselves as game players to purposeful stewards of a system, with a legacy to leave behind. This requires the courage, credibility, and skill to provide organisations with constructive feedback on how they can improve – out of loyalty and respect rather than entitlement. Although leaders should seek to align their skillset with their level of influence, it is important that they do not rely on organisational hierarchy for their sense of self-worth.
A number of senior women are walking the tightrope out of necessity. In doing so, they are using the conflicting judgments of society as guides to help them achieve this balance. Increasingly men who seek to become more inspiring leaders are following suit. As with all worthwhile endeavours, the journey is inevitably liberating and rife with challenges. Through their bravery and perseverance these leaders are redefining the rules of success and transforming the culture of business for future generations.
Justine Lutterodt is director of the Centre for Synchronous Leadership and founder of the Walk the Tightrope movement