Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lean in or Shake Hands? How Women (and Men) Meet Corporations

Jody Greenstone Miller, founder and CEO of Business Talent Group has written a response to the “Lean in” argument by Facebook COO Shery Sandberg in Wall Street Journal. To recap the argument and the response, Sanderg’s new book argues that women's careers are held back by unfair assessments at work and time demands at home, but also by their own behaviors. They do not take risks, take leadership, and assert themselves in the workplace, especially when they are starting a family. They pull back, she says, at exactly the time that they instead need to “lean in” and take charge of their workplace and family.

Miller thinks that the “lean in” argument is a diversion. Women do fail to live up to the expectations of time commitment to top-level managerial work, but these time commitments do not make sense to begin with. Ingrained habits and managerial laziness has led to a culture of trying to find stars and then piling work on them until they can take no more. Guess what? That game is best played by men with housewives and single women. But, Miller argues based on her own experience building the Business Talent Group, a project-based organization that scales work to fit each person can get star performance from people without ruining their private lives. And it can do this for both men and women.

The debate on time is interesting, and I think Miller’s arguments are based on two premises that we know to be true both from research and everyday experience. People do in fact work better when they do the right amount of work; but managers still try to categorize people into stars and the rest, and will overload the stars instead of designing the work more rationally. It is not clear that it is the right response for everyone to lean into such a situation.

There is a broader issue at stake too. By asking people to “lean in,” Sandberg is asking them to present themselves at work differently than they would naturally do. She is asking them to adapt to the organization, instead of being authentic as individuals. This process of people adapting to the organization is known as socialization, and there has been much research on it. Socialization helps communication and action by giving those who work together a common set of beliefs, common language, and common goals.

A recent article by Daniel Cable, Francesca Gino, and Bradley Staats in Administrative Science Quarterly shows that socialization based on shaping new employees to the organization has pitfalls as well. Compared with socialization that encourages them to express themselves, it led to worse employee retention and individual performance. Why can the organization do better by asking employees to behave more as authentic individuals? The key mechanism is that socialization that encourages employees to be authentic lets them contribute in ways that play to their strengths, increasing performance. Higher retention is easy because it comes naturally from the satisfaction of not having to fake it at work.

Going a little beyond what this research showed, having individuals contribute in ways that play to their own strength can be leveraged if the organizational supervisors learn to use these strengths. Because individuals have different strengths, they can be matched to different tasks and work group roles, creating even higher performance. To realize these additional performance benefits, we come back to the issue raised by Miller: good management practices, like knowing the strengths of your employees, are needed for a more effective and happy workplace. And, there is nothing specifically female about these improvements: men and women would benefit.

A final note. Yes, I know that I missed Women’s Day when posting this. You see, my organization was keeping me really busy with some urgent tasks.


  1. Questions raised by this exchange: If organizations don't set up such individual-friendly policies at the start -- when they begin to hire -- then how difficult is it subsequently to enact them? If such policies run against the grain of industry best practices, what can managers do? Work to create a "demonstration effect" and/or try to convince industry trade associations that they represent better "best practices" and should be diffused.

  2. I think these kinds of comments understate - indeed ignore - the benefits (from an efficiency and reliability perspective) of standardizing roles for coordination, etc. Miller's point that organizations need not equate "time at your desk" with quality is good. I totally agree.

    But we should separate questions of expectations re facetime and optimal job design. The case from which Miller draws her generalizations - BTG - looks to be a project based consulting firm where there is likely very little in the way of positive or negative externalities between projects. That's not Facebook, and certainly not Wal-Mart. Routinization has benefits! So if one wants to argue that organizations should make more room for authentic individual expression by compromising on the benefits of routinization, then that tradeoff should be addressed explicitly. Miller's example perhaps unwittingly dodges the question, or tries to finesse it by saying that high-level jobs are all like this. And even in her example, it is not clear who decides the overall allocation of projects, who deals with unexpected contingencies, who manages conflicts, etc. Most firefighters spend the day at work sitting around waiting, but can't leave.

  3. This is actually a fairly old post, but its importance has never diminished since it has been written. By enabling each individual to play to their strengths not only just increase their performance and the overall performance of the organizations, it also helps to maintain the good environment for the employees who surround them. This is an important fact for managers to consider when they make policy about the current change in the working place and working environments. Thanks for sharing this post, Prof. Henrich.