People trust us in professional relationships when we show them that we possess three qualities: ability–we can do the task; integrity–we will do the task; and benevolence–we care about the task and about them.
The three qualities aren’t, however, on the same level. While every employee, from the mailroom to the boardroom, needs to show ability–each at their level–not all are expected to show benevolence. Mid- and high-level employees need to have integrity, but employers ensure it among the lower-rungs by putting in place control systems such as supervisors, managers, time-tracking systems, etc.
Someone who wants to be seen as a leader needs to inspire deep trust. In addition to showing that she can do the job and that she doesn’t need to be controlled to deliver on expectations, she needs to show she cares. That she cares so deeply about the project that she’ll do whatever it takes–even sacrifice herself–to bring it to fruition.
The Calculating Self
The calculating self is a vestige of childhood, Rosamunde S. Zander and Benjamin Zander write in their 2000 book, The Art of Possibility. Children’s main goal, state the authors, is to survive the threats they encounter in childhood so as to become adults. To achieve it, they are programmed to get attention because their life depends on someone watching over them.
The calculating self drives children–and sometimes adults–to strategize all their moves in order to get what they want. They can’t give because they’re all too concerned with their own safety. So they’re selfish, self-centered, and blind to what other people may need. They are people pleasers for their own sake–it’s in their interest to please others.
The Central Self
The central self, the Zanders describe, is generous, open, permeable and blooms when the person feels in charge of her own destiny.
The central self has no fear because it doesn’t feel threatened. It just is. That makes it authentic and caring. It can focus on others because it is confident about itself and its own survival. It doesn’t need attention because it can take care of itself.
Stereotype Threat and Women in Male-Led Work Environments
In work environments where women work in high numbers but the leaders are men, a woman may feel threatened. She has fear for her own survival, metaphorically speaking, and thus her calculating self may take control.
When that happens, she’ll strive to show she can in order to secure her position in a threatening world. She’ll control every detail because anything could kick her out. And she’ll become blind to other people’s needs because she’ll be all too worried about her own safety.
In addition, the stereotype threat looms over women in demanding positions.
The stereotype threat is the researched and proven effect that makes a stigmatized group perform more poorly in a high-stakes situation. For example, a white sprinter competing against a black one may feel that he’ll be confirming the stereotype that white sprinters are weaker than black ones if he loses. This idea becomes a pressing feeling that will make the white athlete perform worse and hence, lose to the black one.
Other stereotypes are ‘women are bad at math,’ ‘women are not good leaders,’ or ‘women don’t care about work because they’ll leave as soon as they can and stay at home with the kids.’
In this scenario, threatened by the stereotype and concerned with her own survival in a threatening work environment, a woman’s calculating self may take control.
As a result, two things will happen: first, the woman will perform worse and second, she’ll become self-centered.
Then, she’ll fight against her impoverished performance by focusing on doing the best job ever. She’ll become a perfectionist and she’ll make sure everyone sees how good she is at what she does.
But a woman who strives so hard to show she can will be stuck at the ability level of trust. And because she’s become blind to other people’s needs, she won’t be able to show she cares about the project/client/company. Hence, she won’t inspire deep trust and won’t portray herself as a potential leader.
The solution? Don’t feel threatened, just be.
Allow your central self to take control: be open, permeable, embrace the possibility of transformation. Look to the future, look at other people. Don’t feel judged and don’t judge yourself. Allow mistakes, allow recovery, allow learning.
Be. Care. Lead.
Jessica Chastain in the movie, Miss Sloane.