Masculinity is damaging the workplace – it’s time to fix it

The idea of ‘manning up’ is gone, argues Daniele Fiandaca, and we need to start being more empathetic, open and vulnerable at work

Some might argue it’s too late to change what it means to be a man – or if you should care – or how it affects women and non-binary people. However you look at it, the traditional concept of ‘masculinity’ is ingrained in our everyday. Masculinity in the workplace is particularly tricky – we know our current setup isn’t fit for purpose, let alone futureproof, so change must happen. And that means male leaders must change too.

But why would they, and why should they?

After all, many men – myself included – have spent their lives as part of the ‘in’ group: those who believe, subconsciously or otherwise, that the workplace is theirs for the taking. Maintaining the status quo has clear benefits. You’re rarely questioned – if you are pulled up on something, you can blag your way out of it. You’re given opportunities. You’re part of the gang, and as a result, you get more than a fair shake of the stick.

But the world is changing, as is the definition of what it means to be a great leader.

As this change accelerates, many traditionally masculine traits are now less relevant. Being authoritative, competitive and dominant no longer has such a prominent place in a truly inclusive and diverse workplace; and research from the likes of McKinsey clearly shows a non-diverse team isn’t as effective as a diverse one.

Now, emotional intelligence, empathy and vulnerability – traditionally seen as more feminine characteristics – are claiming equal currency. Yet for many, adopting these behaviours is a battle against a lifetime of conditioning. In his book How Not To Be A Boy, comedian and actor Robert Webb says: “When we tell a boy to act ‘like a man’, we’re effectively saying ‘stop expressing those feelings’. If the boy hears that often enough, it starts to sound uncannily like ‘stop feeling those feelings’.”

As a one-time member of the ‘in’ male leader fraternity, I’ve experienced first-hand the negative impact ‘manning up’ can have. It wasn’t until my brother passed away in 2011 that I really understood the value of allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Bottling up painful or negative feelings is damaging – perhaps an obvious observation, but one that’s not addressed often enough in the workplace. Understanding that vulnerability is the root of courage, a key inclusive leadership trait, which can be the starting point of effective change.

So too is empathy. It’s simply putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. But when you’ve spent most of your career in that ‘in’ group, it’s difficult to understand what it feels like to be in the ‘out’ group.

No surprise then, that businesses suffer from a significant empathy gap. A 2018 State in the Workplace study by Businessolver found that while a massive 92 per cent of CEOs described their organisations as empathetic, only 50 per cent of employees agreed. And 45 oer cent of CEOs reported difficulty in demonstrating empathy in their day-to-day working lives.

Let’s be clear – this isn’t a call for leaders to become ‘softer’ because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, or it’s good for ‘brand purpose’, or merely the latest bandwagon in town. It’s very much about advocating the business value of better understanding each other on a human level, and driving culture change to realise the subsequent returns.

When productivity still depends largely on people, cultivating a culture of empathy is a no-brainer. It’s a place where people can speak openly about how they feel vulnerable, express their frustrations, aspirations and needs, and feel they will be truly listened to with kindness.

Some are embracing this – several of our C-suite clients block out weekly time in their diaries to spend an hour chatting about non-work issues with employees. Other businesses spend the first 15 minutes of their monthly meetings talking about their personal lives. This wider understanding of what makes a business’s people tick makes for a more respectful, and eventually more productive workforce.

But a key part of empathy is being supportive of everyone.

Trite as it may sound to say ‘think of the poor men’ in 2019, at the heart of inclusion is a recognition that it embraces everyone, men included. Yet many men are starting to feel the strain in the workplace. A Perkbox study found that men are significantly more likely to report experiencing work-related stress than women: half of male respondents (50 per cent) felt this way, compared with one in three (38 per cent) females.

It’s an issue we’ll be addressing at our annual Masculinity in the Workplace conference later this month. Acknowledging that the balance has changed, and working to raise awareness of the fact that a masculine workplace culture is damaging for men too, is a key part of educating and inspiring people to become changemakers in and out of the workplace. 

If the past decade has focused squarely on positively shifting the role of women in society and the workplace, now is as good a time as ever to address the impact of that shift on men too. After all, there’s a lot of truth in the saying ‘In order to emancipate women, we need to liberate men’.

Daniele Fiandaca is co-founder of Utopia. The Masculinity in the Workplace conference is on 19 November.