Tough at the top – why management is still macho

Macho boss

Employees are increasingly looking for leadership traits such as empathy and vulnerability in the workplace – but bosses aren’t demonstrating or rewarding these behaviours, according to new research out today.

Researchers found that three in five workers think empathy is critical for business success, but les than two in ten believe it’s rewarded by their organisation.

The study paints a picture of workplaces and leaders that are still overtly ‘masculine’, and in contrast to what workers value and need from the workplace, according to the Masculinity in the Workplace study by culture change business Utopia and The Hobbs Consultancy.

While half of respondents see vulnerability as a key leadership trait, an overwhelming 97 per cent say being emotionally open at work would be neither valued nor rewarded.

Men in particular suppress ‘softer’ traits, with four in ten reporting they’re taught to avoid being empathetic at work. This rises to half of men in non-managerial roles believing they have to actively hide how they feel.

We need leaders who are able to meet that difficulty by taking the armour off, not by armouring up even more

The upshot is that workers feel inhibited and unable to express themselves at work, with more than a third saying it’s more than just not being valued – it’s too risky to demonstrate vulnerability in the workplace, for fear of judgement.

This is compounded by workers believing that the most-lauded leadership behaviours within their organisations are inherently masculine: the most-rewarded are confidence and assertion (43%), action-orientated and results-focused (39%), and ambition and competitiveness (29%).

In direct contrast, flexibility tops the list of traits employees think should be most valued, at 36 per cent – probably due to the work-from-home climate. Ranking second and third are empathy and collaboration, both at 34 per cent.

Roxanne Hobbs, founder of The Hobbs Consultancy, said: “This year has certainly been difficult. We need leaders who are able to meet that difficulty by taking the armour off, not by armouring up even more.

“Workplaces have largely done well at introducing mental health initiatives, but our research shows that this isn’t enough. What actually needs to change is the culture within organisations and the leadership styles of those at the top.

“We need leaders who are able to offer emotional exposure and tolerate uncertainty. These aren’t always innate skills and can certainly be taught.”

Daniele Fiandaca, co-founder of Utopia, said: “It’s vital we shine a light on the damage masculine cultures can have on everyone in the workplace, including men. Lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic have taken a massive toll on workplace cultures, and the past six months have shown us the importance of cultural intelligence, the need for empathy and the power of vulnerability. These are behaviours we need to start mirroring in the workplace, as our research shows.

“It’s 2020. It’s time we change the workplace for good, and shift from outdated, masculine working cultures to more empathetic and open ones. It’s what people want – and it’s what they deserve.”