Our cavemen ancestors were pretty wily characters. But they had to be. Their survival depended on it.
They developed an evolved ability to notice changes — because if the T-Rex usually drank at the water hole in the morning, then that might be a safe time to go out and gather berries. If they saw fresh footprints, or droppings, or heard roars outside the cave, that might be a change – and might be the wrong time to poke a nose out of the old cave.
It was good for Grandma and Grandpa Caveman if everything went as expected, because that meant no surprises. No T-Rex coming out of nowhere, looking to eat a clueless Caveman. Yep, Grandma and Grandpa kept an eye out for changes, noted them, then tried to predict how to behave so they wouldn’t get eaten.
We modern humans don’t like change, either. We resist it. We deny it. We attempt to wish it away. It’s just that surprises can be so…surprising. Think about a time you were surprised or startled at something which wasn’t what you had expected. Did your heart race? Did your vision tunnel down? Did you have the urge to get the hell out of there?
Why, you’re just like a caveman!
This jumble of reactions to being startled or surprised is call “the fight or flight phenomena” and we’ve all heard about it for ages. But guess what? Like so much other research, the studies which documented fight or flight were done on male subjects. And that’s changing. For example, when researchers started doing studies on women and heart disease, they found women had much different heart attack symptoms. Similarly, recent studies at UCLA have shown that women aren’t particularly motivated by fight or flight — that’s generally a male reaction to stress. Women, rather, stay put — and “mend and tend”.
Let me give you an example. There’s a war going on. Men are fighting, fleeing, or laying there dying. Women, on the other hand, are Clara Barton or Molly Pitcher. When the workplace is stressful, women often make sure their team has bandages and enough to drink — and this is precisely where women executives get stuck. The war is raging around them and they are oblivious because they are tending to their people.
When I coach women in this situation, I try to reframe “mend and tend” as a uniquely female asset while simultaneously raising women’s consciousness that they have to engage in the office politics with the guys. If a woman steps out of the game to tend to her team, she’s often “out of it” and excluded as a player, with sometimes devastating career consequences. I think women’s basic orientation toward “mend and tend” is the reason so many of us step away from corporate careers and toward our own businesses. It’s “The game makes no sense using your rules – I’ll play by my own rules, thank you very much.”
Dr. Michael Gurian, in his book What Could He Be Thinking? talks at length about how men are constantly calibrating their sense of worth by evaluating the men they are around. They ‘sportify’ nearly all they do, with teams and statistics and standings – just so they can know where they are vis a vis the “other guys”. [Sportify is my own word, dontcha like it? Feel free to work it into any conversation you’d like. Hey, wonder if I can get it into Webster’s…!]
Bottom line: women are just wired differently than men. To jump to another subject, I think that’s why some women are not participating in politics. With all the reportage around who’s up, who’s down, margin of error – it’s sportified to the point that it’s not relevant to the way many women see the world. [oh, I just used sportify again! It’s starting to catch on!]
While men continue to dominate the executive suites, fight or flight will be the common currency of the leadership class. But it won’t always be that way. The women I’m coaching today are the CEOs of tomorrow. I’ve talked with executive recruiters who are desperate for qualified women to put forward as CEO candidates, and Board of Director candidates. We will shortly have the first woman Speaker of the House — a powerful leadership role a close remove from the Oval Office.
I’ll bet you, as more women leaders step into their own unique abilities, we’ll see significant change in the way companies work. Because a woman’s “mend and tend” approach is a powerful way to build teams, manage groups and create cohesive morale. All things which are vital to success. All things women do quite naturally, thank you very much.