Do “Sensitive” Men Get Overlooked in Business?

Let’s face it, there isn’t much written about “nice” guys and “sensitive” men in the workplace.

One of the rare articles exploring ideas about your “atypical” workplace male was explored in the Harvard Business Review article, “Sensitive Men: It’s Your Glass Ceiling,” by Andrew O’Connell.
The article raised some interesting questions and assumptions that present a starting point for the old adage “Nice guys finish last.”

Here are some excerpts from the article:
“If you’re a caring and empathic guy, but you’ve noticed that you’re a lot more likely to come home from work with a headache than a promotion, chances are you’ve been banging into a glass ceiling — the same glass ceiling that stops women from rising to the C suite.  A team from Middle Tennessee State University finds that the higher you go on the corporate ladder, the more you’re among people who put a lot of stock in assertiveness and independence — what psychologists call “agentic” qualities — rather than on such things as caring about others’ feelings

The article goes on to say that the nearer you get to the top the more “task-related” behavioral expectations grow. Qualities the author labels as “communal,” (aka “soft”) are even less prized.  It’s all about action and results. The study on which the article is based was drawn from a large sample (14,000 men and women) and suggests that “agentic” vs. communal behaviors may have more to do with promotion than gender alone.

The article recommends several possible strategies “sensitive” men (and we assume non ”agentic” women) can use to overcome their communal liabilities:

  1. Play up the task-oriented side of your personality
  2. Switch to an organization that is more aligned with communal qualities
  3. Play the “organizational game” and play the role that your company favors (the author of the study suggests that the sensitive guy can find opportunities outside of the workplace to nurture and retain their communal inner qualities)

We have to admit, the article (and study) pushed our emotional buttons.  While the study contributes a piece to the puzzle of achieving gender parity in the workplace, it’s also laden with assumptions and unexamined beliefs that reveal a great deal about gaping holes in our understanding.

Let’s begin by defining the word the author uses to describe the desirable qualities for the climb to the top – “agentic.” Must admit, this word is new to us.  Generally defined as Social cognition theory perspective that views people as self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting and self-regulating, not just as reactive organisms shaped by environmental forces or driven by inner impulses. Agentic leadership is derived from the term Agency. This leadership style is generally found in the business field by a person who demonstrates assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, courageousness, and is masterful in achieving their task at hand.” 

Questioning the Assumptions

Assumption #1 – “Agentic” is better than Communal
In using the word “agentic” is the study implying that the behaviors of self-organization, pro-action and self-reflection are absent or incompatible in those with so-called communal values?  Is self-regulation a euphemism for containing emotional expression? And are assertiveness (a misunderstood and misapplied term in business and the culture at large) independence and courage mutually exclusive with communal behaviors?

Assumption #2 – Sensitivity is Weakness
While the article does not define the word “sensitive” except to ascribe it to these undefined communal values, it does carry with it certain implications, especially for men.  At best, the essence of the word describes someone who possesses acute and deep perceptions of the outside world. Depending on what world view lens you put on,  you might also see this man as “soft, or ineffectual.”  In the book, The Male Factor, extensive interviews with a large, cross-section of working men revealed that for most of these men, any display of emotions, led them to not trust the judgment of their emotive colleagues!

Assumption #3 – The Traditional Male Model of Work is the Right Model
The world of work as we know it has largely been the brainchild of men. Since the beginnings of “modern management” in the late 19th century, the conditioning, thinking, emotional landscape and behaviors of men have shaped the norms of today’s workplace. Does this study presume  that the dominant themes of male culture that still drive the workplace are the best models for the future of work?

Assumption #4 – Men Don’t Feel
We’re not sure about the assumptions made in this study about men’s emotions.  If sensitive men and most women are more communal, we assume that means they feel more. News flash: Everyone has feelings. Whether you are from Venus or Mars, you feel. Undeniably, there are gender differences in brain activity. But we believe that the behavioral differences have more to do with socialization, than hard-wiring.  Truth is many men are still raised in cultures where their emotional expression is repressed at worst and misunderstood at least. Too many men are conditioned to rely on what they perceive to be their “rationality” vs. their emotions.

Assumption # 5 – Playing the “Organizational Game” Produces Success
First, let’s define success. If it’s exclusively about promotions, perks and pay – that’s one thing. If success to you means that you live your life in accordance with who you are – this defintion of success is one-dimensional.  Too many people are playing the “game” and are exhausted and dispirited as a result. Isn’t this old tired model for success ready for retirement?

Assumption # 6 – Hey Sensitive Guy – Satisfy that Communal Thing on Your Own Time!
Suggesting that this sensitive guy and communal gal live these parts in their social and family lives is a complete reinforcement of the body-mind split.  For decades, studies have shown that the body, mind and emotions are one integrated system that you can’t turn on and off like a switch. This kind of 19th century mindset also reinforces the myths that there is a Personal Self and a Work Self. This meme is incredibly resilient and continues to do damage in understanding the true nature of human dynamics in the workplace. It flies in the face of everything that enlightened leadership thinkers have preached for at least a generation.

If we want to gain real depth of understanding of the forces that drive behaviors (that lead to decision and policy making) in business, we need to get better at questioning the powerful underlying assumptions of these premises.  Sadly, the culture we live in still believes in and promotes the idea that “nice guys finish last.” If the nice has to do with feelings and last represents the glass ceiling, we’ve got a long way to go!

Thanks for sharing,

Louise & Altman,  Intentional Communication Partners

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