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by Dina Gerdeman
Women make up more than half of the labor force in the United States and earn almost 60 percent of advanced degrees, yet they bring home less pay and fill fewer seats in the C-suite than men, particularly in male-dominated professions like finance and technology.
This gender gap is due in part to “occupational sorting,” with men choosing careers that pay higher wages than women do, labor economists say. For example, women represent only 26 percent of US workers employed in computer and math jobs, according to the Department of Labor.
New research identifies one reason women might be shying away from certain professions: They lack confidence in their ability to compete in fields that men are stereotypically believed to perform more strongly in, such as science, math, and technology.
Women are also more reluctant to share their ideas in group discussions on these subjects. And even when they have talent—and are actually told they are high-achievers in these subjects—women are more likely than men to shrug off the praise and lowball their own abilities.
This weak self-confidence may hold some women back as they count themselves out of pursuing prestigious roles in professions they believe they won’t excel in, despite having the skills to succeed, says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Katherine B. Coffman.
“Our beliefs about ourselves are important in shaping all kinds of important decisions, such as what colleges we apply to, which career paths we choose, and whether we are willing to contribute ideas in the workplace or try to compete for a promotion,” Coffman says. “If talented women in STEM aren’t confident, they might not even look at those fields in the first place. It’s all about how good we think we are, especially when we ask ourselves, ‘What does it make sense for me to pursue?’”
Coffman has recently co-written an article in the American Economic Review as well as two working papers, all aimed at studying men’s and women’s beliefs about their own abilities.
“Women are more likely than men to shrug off the praise and lowball their own abilities.”
What she found, in essence, is that gender stereotypes distort our views of both ourselves and others—and that may be especially troubling for women, since buying into those stereotypes could be creating a bleak self-image that is setting them back professionally.
Here’s a snapshot of findings from all three research studies:
Women are less confident than men in certain subjects, like math
In a study for the journal article Beliefs about Gender (pdf), Coffman and her colleagues asked participants to answer multiple-choice trivia questions in several categories that women are perceived to have a better handle on, like the Kardashians, Disney movies, cooking, art and literature, and verbal skills. Then they were quizzed in categories considered favorable for men, such as business, math, videogames, cars, and sports.
Respondents were asked to estimate how many questions they answered correctly on tests, and to guess the performance of a random partner whose gender was revealed. Both men and women exaggerated the actual gender performance gaps on average, overstating the male advantage in male-typed domains as well as overstating the female advantage in female-typed questions. And in predicting their own abilities, women had much less confidence in their scores on the tests they believed men had an advantage in.
“Gender stereotypes determine people’s beliefs about themselves and others,” Coffman says. “If I take a woman who has the exact same ability in two different categories—verbal and math—just the fact that there’s an average male advantage in math shapes her belief that her own ability in math is lower.”
Women discount positive feedback about their abilities
In an experiment for Coffman’s working paper Stereotypes and Belief Updating, participants completed a timed test of cognitive ability in five areas: general science, arithmetic reasoning, math knowledge, mechanical comprehension, and assembling objects. They were asked to guess their total number of correct answers, as well as how their performance compared to others. A woman who actually had the same score as a man estimated her score to be 0.58 points lower, a statistically significant gap. Even more surprising, even after participants were provided with feedback about how they performed, this gender gap in how well they perceived they did continued.
In a second study participants were asked to guess how they performed on a test in a randomly assigned subject matter and to predict their own rank relative to others completing the same test. The researchers then provided participants with feedback about their performance. They found that both men and women discounted good news about their scores in subjects that their gender was perceived to have more trouble with.
Stereotypes play on our minds so strongly that it becomes tougher to convince people of their talent in fields where they believe their gender is weak, Coffman says.
“A policy prescription to correct a confidence gap in women might be: Let’s find talented women and tell them, ‘Hey, you’re good at math. You got a really good score on this math test,'” she says. “But our results suggest that this feedback is less effective in closing the gender gap than we might hope. It’s harder than we thought to convince women in male-typed fields that they’ve performed well in these fields.”
It’s unclear whether women would feel better about their abilities if they received repeated rounds of positive feedback, rather than one piece of good news. “I’d be interested to find out if the gender bias gets smaller over time, once a woman has heard that she’s good at math over and over again,” Coffman says. “You might have to encourage women a few times if you want to close these gaps.”
“Our work suggests a need for structuring group decision-making in a way that assures the most talented members both volunteer and are recognized for their contributions, despite gender stereotypes.”
It’s important to note, Coffman says, that these studies also show that men have less confidence than women in their ability to shine in fields dominated by women. “It’s not that women are simply less confident; what we find consistently is that individuals are less confident in fields that are more stereotypically outside of their gender’s domain,” Coffman says.
Posted By Helen Riess, M.D.
We are facing a critical time of fear and uncertainty with the invasion of the novel Corona virus on the world stage, when healthcare organizations are scrambling to keep patients and workers safe, informed and calm. When fear takes hold, we can expect reactions to follow along a continuum from frank denial to full scale panic. Both of these extreme responses are not only unhelpful, but dangerous.
When people raid grocery stores or hospital shelves and stock up on more hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes or face masks than they could possibly need, they leave others vulnerable to infection and with even greater fear and loss of control. In a time of crisis, we need to worry about other people as much or even more than ourselves.
Many regard empathy as merely a soft emotion of feeling sorry for others. Empathy is a powerful tool in times of crisis (see more at TEDx The Power of Empathy.) Our hard-wired capacity for empathy involves both cognitive and emotional centers of the brain, and when effectively harnessed together, can help leaders provide truthful, caring, and helpful information while at the same time remain calm, steady, and decisive. Empathy is a crucial part of emotional intelligence that leaders need to employ in times of crisis.
How does empathy relate to emotional intelligence (EI)? EI is the ability to practice: (1) self-awareness (2) other awareness, (3) self-management, and (4) relationship management. Being alert to these practices and actually putting them into action through empathy can greatly impact overall health and well-being – of ourselves as well as others – during a healthcare crisis.
Self-awareness means recognizing your own emotions. Before springing into action, you must first assess your own mental states so you can manage them. Many empathetic people are better at perceiving the emotional needs of others than their own. Just as oncologists must steady themselves before delivering bad news so they don’t inflict their own stress onto their patients, you must recognize your own emotions. Self-awareness also involves understanding your own vulnerabilities and remembering what you need to do to remain calm and safe. In our current crisis, this means you must take into account how your decision-making may be influenced by your emotional state, and then adjust your choices accordingly.
Other-Awareness and Empathy
Every human being has a longing to be seen and understood, and this longing becomes much more acute in times of crisis. “I see you” is the meaning of the Zulu word for hello, “Sawubona”. It is also what opens the gate for other-awareness and empathy. It takes intention and openness to take in the emotional and physical expressions of others. Instead of looking at a waiting room as a sea of humanity, it’s important to see each person as an individual. Just a kind look in the eye or using the person’s name more than once in a conversation will help people know they matter.
Other-awareness involves not only appreciating the feelings of others but also understanding their perspectives and life circumstances. This capacity allows us to move beyond the chief complaints people have to valuing their chief concerns. Patients or co-workers who seem to be over-reacting to the current health crisis likely have some legitimate reasons for their fears. Genuine interest and careful listening will be necessary during this healthcare challenge to prevent dismissing concerns or labeling others. Showing empathy in this way will help calm fears and enable others to make rational choices for the care of themselves and others.
Self-Management and Self-Empathy
Implementing the tools that work best to calm your own fears requires knowing yourself and understanding your need for self-empathy. Contrary to popular belief, self-empathy is different from selfishness. It’s very hard to take good care of others if you neglect yourself. Self-empathy does not mean “I care more about myself more than you” but rather, “I need to take care of myself so I’m able to take care of you.” Every healthcare provider and staff member needs their own unique tool kit for self-management and know when to use it. And when we are asked to use social distancing and self-quarantine to avoid virus exposure, we do this to help both ourselves and others.
The secret to effective relationship management is empathic listening and seeking to understand others’ feelings, thoughts and circumstances. It is essential to finding common ground. In a crisis, we need to relay facts with empathy and clarity. False assurances are worthless and cause greater alarm when truth is revealed. In other words, spreading false hope is destructive. True empathy requires the ability to tune into the fears and concerns of others and provide the best recommendations, even if they are not what people want to hear. It is walking the fine line of perceiving and taking care of immediate emotions while not losing sight of what is the best medical care in the long term. No one wants to hear that his/her normal routines and practices are now curtailed, but when focused on the long-term health of our society, the short-term restrictions make sense.
The Power of Empathy: A Call to Action
At this time of international emergency, there’s an urgent need for global empathy. The current situation calls for us to empower ourselves and others to collectively come together, bringing our best selves to the forefront to overcome this global health crisis. Far from the notion of survival of the fittest, where the strongest individuals only take care of themselves, we need altruism, cooperation, and collaboration to save our society as a whole. It is time to think about our patients as individuals, as well as our neighbors, co-workers, friends and family, and do what we can to support one another and to ask for help when we need it ourselves.
Helping each other is what brings us together and enlivens our spirit and our communities, and it is needed now more than ever, locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.
Dr. Riess is a psychiatrist and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She directs the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has devoted her career to the art and science of healing relationships. Her research has been published in leading medical journals and has won many awards. Dr Riess’s TEDx talk “The power of Empathy TEDX” has been viewed by more than 500,000 viewers. Her new book, The Empathy Effect has been licensed in nine foreign countries. In 2012, Dr. Riess co-founded Empathetics.com an organization that provides evidence-based empathy and communication skills training for healthcare and education. Dr. Riess and her teams are dedicated to transforming healthcare systems into compassionate care systems.
Recognition is growing among healthcare leaders of the need for a culture change within their organizations. Moving from recognition to reality, however, is more difficult. The problem lies in the perception – or misperception – of what a culture change actually entails.
Culture change is not a program with a completion date, nor is it a quick fix. It is an ongoing journey – a journey that requires leaders to understand the current state of the organization, establish a clear vision, align behaviors and instill accountability.
Vision Versus Cultural Reality
Facing the need for a culture change, large corporations, not-for-profit institutions and faith-based organizations all say the same thing: “We’re different, we’re unique.” But actually, they share many common challenges and objectives. They all hire people with goals and ambitions, and with expectations as to how they will be treated, accepted, rewarded and promoted.
All too often, however, employee expectations and those of the organization are not fully aligned. This may be despite what the organization professes as its objectives. For employees, it is the culture of the organization that is the reality, not the mission statement that hangs on the wall.
Many senior executives are out of touch with the realities of their organization. Typically, leadership only discovers what is really going on when employee surveys come back with unexpected results. Such evidence dissolves complacency and compels action. In fact, this awareness is usually where the real journey toward culture change begins.
Achieving a culture change within an organization is an ongoing process involving deliberate, intentional steps that include:
- Knowledge and Awareness
- Honest assessment of the current culture
- Development of baseline data
- Vision of the desired state
- Recognition and Reward
- Demonstration of desired behaviors
- Encouragement and reward for desired behaviors and outcomes
- Determination of the decision-making process (who, what, when, how)
- Development of an organizational communication strategy
- Delivery of consistent messages throughout the organization
- Frank discussion of tough issues that are frequently avoided
- Systems, Structures and Linkage
- Alignment of top leadership and performance management with the organization’s core values and issues
- Determination of core competencies to support the desired culture
- Delineation of goals – including “stretch” goals – for leadership
- Linkage of behaviors, goals and achievements to compensation
Building a Framework for Change
Much can be learned from the successes and failures of organizations attempting to implement large-scale change initiatives. Such an examination reveals the value of using proven tools and techniques such as change acceleration process (for rapid decision-making), Work-Out (when the problem is known but the solution is not) and Lean Six Sigma (to streamline processes and reduce variation). These techniques can give employees a solid framework for addressing the issues they confront on a daily basis.
A simple equation to communicate this framework for sustainable change is Q x A = E, or the quality of the solution times the acceptance of that solution will equal the overall effectiveness. The individual components may be considered common sense, but they are not necessarily common practice.
In addition, it is important that this framework also include:
- Clear management and leadership systems with 360-degree feedback
- Skip-level meetings (meetings where leaders bypass their direct reports and speak to the next level of the organization)
- A consistent operating calendar
- A linkage between people, strategy and results.
The mere existence of an internal quality program cannot bring about a culture change. Leaders must focus on and balance all elements of the equation to begin the journey toward change and achieve sustainable results.
‘A’ Side of Equation Is Essential
Employee acceptance is essential. Many organizations have declared their mission, written goals, produced vision statements and embraced a philosophy or set of values that fits their organization. These affirmations often include such lofty themes as empowerment, boundarylessness, customer focus, passion for excellence, accountability, quality mindset, employees as partners and so on. They are conveyed to all employees, reinforced in communication and are used to measure performance.
However, often there is no structure to support the realization of these organizational objectives. The employees frequently lack a genuine commitment to their company’s stated goals, mission, value statements and general philosophies because:
- They feel they have no input into the process.
- The statements are long, vague and do not relate directly to employees’ work.
- Goals and values are only communicated once a year and then not mentioned again.
- The statements are constantly being changed or revised.
- The leadership team is inconsistent in its actions and behaviors in support of the goals and values.
The failure to support goals and values could stem from such management practices as giving individual rewards and recognition versus team projects and rewards; identifying and grooming individuals with high potential for selected management positions while ignoring others who contribute to the team’s success; relying on employee comparisons and rankings that may be subjective instead of objective; discriminating within training, development, salary and promotions; and talking to instead of with employees. Other problems could include leadership actions that fail to “walk the talk,” an unwillingness on the part of management to accept feedback, a lack of upper management diversity and high turnover.
Such organizational shortcomings are often a matter of focus. In an effort to reduce cost, raise quality, boost productivity and surpass the competition in the marketplace, management may neglect such issues without realizing the impact it can have on employees, and thus the entire organization. Further, when confronted with the problems of stressed, overworked and burned-out employees, management often dismisses the complaints as trivial. The employees are sometimes labeled as “not being team players” or “not the stuff leaders are made of.”
The general feeling is that “healthcare is a caring profession” – an environment in which it is difficult to discuss performance issues. Tough conversations about people and performance often do not take place in order to avoid difficult or confrontational situations. Action items, decisions and accountability may never be discussed in meetings, where behavior is polite and politically correct. In fact, some of the most important conversations and decisions take place in the hallways after meetings. The fact to remember is that, wherever they take place, face-to-face communication is critical to establishing an honest, open dialogue across the organization.
Conclusion: A Path Toward Culture Change
Healthcare faces many challenges today in the quest to deliver the best and most cost-effective services for patients. One important challenge is to institute a culture change that enables staff, clinicians and managers to feel empowered and adequately equipped to address the problems which can be resolved only by altering their work environment. They need to know they can propose and implement viable solutions to real problems. Visionary healthcare organizations that are seeking to transform the way they deliver care must begin by finding a path toward a culture change.