THE BLOG
12/16/2010 06:55 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Glass Ceiling: The Untold Story

"Emperors are not the only ones with no clothes. We know they're full of B.S., they know they're full of B.S., and they know that we know they're full of B.S."
--A woman executive who asked to remain unnamed, explaining how being in a room of testosterone-driven men is like watching a bunch of "egomaniacs at the trough."

I love my wife, and I respect her opinion, but I don't often want to hear it, and I don't ask her for it as much as I should. When and if I ask for it, it will nearly always help me be more effective, waste less time and be more successful.

For more than 30 years as a clinical psychotherapist, marital therapist and, for the past 15 years, executive coach to high performers who want to get even better, I am not alone in having a woman in my life (sisters and moms can do the same) whose input will make me even better.

But if the input of women who care about us will make me and all these male executives better, why don't we ask for it? From my work with executives who have opened up to me, a few reasons come to mind:

  1. Fear of having their parade rained on or their testosterone rush interrupted

When men are in the middle of a testosterone rush, they feel superhuman and don't like it when that rush is derailed -- what I refer to as "testosterone interruptus." As a result, when men are on a roll (in their life or at least in their minds) and thinking that they have discovered the answer to changing the world and the woman in their life says, "You're not going to wear that shirt are you?" it can break their momentum and trigger an interruption in their feeling powerful. In the boardroom it can come when an egomaniac is going on and on and then looks and sees the lie-and-B.S.-detector expression on one of the women's faces broadcasting, "You're so full of B.S. and you're such a fool!"

  • Fear of humiliation
  • If the lady doth protest too much, perhaps the man doth posture too much. The more bravado a man demonstrates on the outside, usually the more paranoia and fear of being exposed as not particularly smart, capable or caring he feels on the inside. And the shame of those possibilities being exposed (which a knowing woman can say in one glance, more than in a thousand words) can turn out not only to be devastating but lethal. When men commit suicide, it is frequently tied to either having been humiliated or anticipating humiliation (interestingly, when women commit suicide it is frequently tied to just wanting out of unbearable pain that is usually not tied to feeling incompetent).

  • Fear of metastatic incompetence
  • One of the awful burdens on most men is that their worth is too often and too strongly tied to their feeling of competence. The more competent they feel, the more confident, the more powerful and the more worthwhile they feel. The more incompetent they feel, the less confident, the less powerful and the less worthwhile they feel. When women who are often -- thankfully -- less power-consumed point out things that the men in their life are just flat-out wrong about, men will often become very defensive and then counterattack (that said, many women want to be in control as much as their male counterparts). At those points, it's not so much that the man believes himself to be right as it's that inwardly he may be defending against feeling that the woman is right and that he has just made a fool out of himself. Even more deeply, he may be defending his bravado-on-the-outside-insecure-ego-on-the-inside from thinking, "Wow, if I turn out to be as wrong about this as I thought I was right, maybe I'm wrong about many things or even everything." And again, feeling you are wrong can cross over to feeling you're incompetent, and then feeling worthless.

    Frequently many women in business fall into either one of two categories. In the first case, their "egomaniac early-detection system" is operative, and that is why when such women enter into a good ol' boys' room, the conversation suddenly shifts from sexist, passive-aggressive, silly and sometimes mean-spirited jabs at women to a standstill. And good ol' boys don't like being caught with their pants down, nor do they enjoy having their banter stopped. One of the reasons for that is that these guys can't stand to feel embarrassed. Another reason is that the men are also engaging in "boys will be boys" juvenile humor as a way of letting off steam and relieving stress (even if it is at the expense of respect for women). I remember the gallows humor my fellow medical interns and residents engaged in to cut the stress of dealing with very sick patients.

    In the second instance, women who aren't attuned to, or at least annoyed with, the B.S. side of men are that way because they are drinking from the same egomaniac trough. Sadly for women, coming off that way works against them, and the painful truth is that an egotistical, a**hole male gets away with it more than a woman with the same qualities. (Isn't that part of what cost Hillary Clinton the election and what is making for the wide range of ambivalence toward Sarah Palin?)

    In thinking of women who don't turn out to have feet of clay or to be egomaniacal like men, I think of Frances Hesselbein, President and CEO of the Leader to Leader Institute (formerly the Peter Drucker Foundation), who has said, "The leader's job is not to provide energy but to release it from others." I think of that when I see how rarely this seems to be happening from our leaders and think of how much we need it.

    I am also reminded of Golda Meir, the former Prime Minister of Israel. One of the most memorable quotes I heard from her (or from anyone) was what she said in response to the question, "How long will there be war?"

    Meir's reply: "War will end when they love their children more than they hate us."

    I think if she were alive today and asked the same about our economy, she might say: "Our economic woes will stop when greedy people love their fellow human beings more than they love money."

    That's something that every boardroom would do well to hear and heed, whether it comes from a woman or a man.

    Taking Action:

    If you are a woman who doesn't suffer fools (or male foolishness) gladly but doesn't want to create discomfort in men that will only backfire on you, apply the "feed forward" principle that I learned from my colleague Marshall Goldsmith, the world's preeminent executive coach and author of the number-one Wall Street Journal bestseller "What Got You Here Won't Get You There": "Only bring up something that has already happened in a 'matter of fact' reporting manner; otherwise you will invite an endless, win-less debate. Instead, focus on the future that nobody has messed up and invite input for how to make it more productive."

    For example, if you are a woman and notice a lot of unproductive time wasting in meetings with your male colleagues, go up to the lead person and say, "I've noticed that some of our meetings can get off track and that as a result, we often don't accomplish our stated objectives for the meeting. Going forward, what do you suggest I do when I notice this happening, in order to help us get back on track? Also, how would you suggest I do it diplomatically so that I don't ruffle any feathers?" And then be quiet.

    After he answers you, repeat back exactly what he said by saying, "Just to make sure I got what you said correctly, what you're suggesting I do is _____. Is that correct?" Then wait for him to say, "Yes." According to famed social psychologist and researcher Robert Cialdini, author of "Influence: Science and Practice," this will deepen his commitment to being on your side, if and when you do what he suggested.

    ***

    Mark Goulston, M.D. is the author of "Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone," called "one of the best books to buy for everyone else, who will then tell you that you need to read it" by a female senior vice president at IBM.

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