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The past few decades have seen an avalanche of reports on women in the workplace, trying to piece together how to achieve gender equality. Recently, a team of Deloitte consultants decided to take a different tack: They looked at men, who are rarely studied, to understand how they are faring, again in the quest of gender equality. The central focus of their research was 16 professional men from the Greater Toronto Area, spanning a range of family and marital statuses, sexual orientations and ethnic backgrounds. They were interviewed but also, just as importantly, shadowed in the workplace and at home to capture a fuller picture.

I have written that workplace culture tends to reflect masculinity, given both the workplace and world tends to be dominated by male leaders and a patriarchal culture. But the report – The Design of Everyday Men – offers a broader, more nuanced perspective, of men struggling with both masculinity and corporate culture. Sometimes those two critical elements of their lives are in opposition, creating tension, and sometimes they act in unison, again with negative impact.

Carolyn Lawrence, the inclusion leader for Deloitte Canada and Deloitte Global, who co-authored the report with Eric Arthrell, gives one example when she says, “men want to expand their gender roles. They still feel they have to be the breadwinner and hold to that role but they are being asked to show up at home as well. They are trying to carry both roles and are struggling.” Indeed, the report notes that other research found that in dual-earner households with children under 18, 60 per cent of men reported work-family conflict compared with 47 per cent of women. So men are far from aloof from this struggle that is often viewed as primarily faced by women.

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The essential element of corporate culture they fumble with is the need to be always available. That increasingly seems the crucial component for advancement – more important than skills and competence – and is a barrier to being a devoted family man. “This is not how the participants in the study want to work in the future,” Ms. Lawrence stresses. And the study suggests that high potentials, on the quick track to the top, may be quietly suffering the most.

At the core of masculinity, she says, is the need for status – men are biologically and culturally more inclined to seek status than women. And that status can come through leadership at work. As a result, the researchers found that men are “never secure,” constantly needing to prove themselves and concerned with what other people think. Interestingly, research has shown that status-seeking behaviours can be antisocial, such as aggression, or pro-social, such as generosity. In one study, status was viewed as coming from being more generous and the result was that men with higher levels of testosterone became more generous. So we need to be alert to how behaviours are rewarded in the workplace. “If you rewarded behaviours that reflected the whole person then leaders would be whole people,” Ms. Lawrence observes.

The report sets out four themes that characterize the experiences of men in the workplace. Men place enormous pressure on themselves to handle work and family responsibilities as individuals. They believe “it’s all up to me.” Second, men are afraid of failure, which leads them to overcompensate with hypercompetitive behaviour to mask their insecurity and earn professional success. Third, men feel they can’t turn to anyone: Personal relationships and interactions with others might alleviate pressure but men have difficulty building such connections. Finally, men are afraid to step outside the norm on their own and so they look to their leaders and peers for behaviour that might offer alternative, acceptable approaches to their work than “always on.”

That leads to five actions they recommend you take as a leader to counter these pressures of corporate culture and masculinity:

  • Start all meetings with a thoughtful personal story. It can be 30 seconds, but tell stories that show you’re more than just a business leader and, indeed, are a vulnerable human being.
  • Put your own imperfection on display – show that you make mistakes too and that you’re also trying to learn and grow.
  • Have one-on-one conversations with people that go beyond workplace formalities so you can find out who they are as human beings and help them.
  • Check in on people who seem like they need it the least. They may be the most insecure, but are adept at hiding it.
  • Take vacation and parental leave – "fully completely,” as the Tragically Hip put it. Don’t send e-mails from afar. You don’t need to prove yourself; you need to liberate others to not always be on.

Ms. Lawrence feels the last will be the hardest step. But all involve challenges. At the same time, they are practical and tangible. It’s important to try them and help men loosen the grip on them of masculinity and the always-on corporate culture.

Cannonballs

  • Does your workplace – and do you as a manager – value employees being always-on over competence? Is always-on the new measure of competence? That’s a scary thought for the future of your organization, let alone the people working there.
  • How would you draw a leader(https://www.strategy-business.com/blog/Draw-yourself-a-leader?gko=64fd2)? Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University, asks what’s in the sketch you are contemplating. Is it a lone figure? A group? Is the leader at the centre or on top? What’s the height difference between the leader and the followers?
  • Are you prepared for the next economic downturn(https://hbr.org/2019/04/companies-need-to-prepare-for-the-next-economic-downturn)? It will come, and some companies gain advantages in such situations, a team from Boston Consulting Group notes, and one factor being that they acted early. Another: They attended to short-term problems but took a long-term perspective.

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