Trying to ‘make up’ for your perceived weaknesses at work is exhausting and time consuming. Forcing yourself to pursue an ‘accepted’ career path can feel stifling and frustrating. Old, narrow stereotypes of how to achieve business success and what success looks like are still quoted in our society, but slowly their dominance is starting to fade as authenticity and variety start to show their power, to the benefit of us all.
Whether we like it or not the dominant working culture of success in our business world has been that of the white, middle class, alpha male stereotype.
The successful alpha male stereotype wasn’t specifically to do with gender but rather the traits and behaviours associated with this persona. Any gender could try to fit themselves into the stereotype by focusing on traits such as assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, influence, control and problem-focused strategies. The stereotype goes that the stronger you showed these behaviours, the more ‘successful’ you were. The career path that went with this was a narrow, direct and linear fight to the top.
Eagley and Johannesen-Schmidt point out that anyone who sought success but who didn’t naturally fit this personality type found themselves with two choices, either change to mirror these behaviours or melt into the background. It was this ultimatum which led to the exhaustion and ultimately imposter syndrome and unhappiness felt by so many.
The traits that were less prized, and in fact often disregarded entirely, were frequently labelled as ‘female’. These included, collaboration and consensus with others (seen as uncertainty); empathy and concern (seen as time-wasting) and listening to gather ideas and options (viewed as not ‘knowing-your-stuff’).
Men were equally disadvantaged by these attitudes because any show of behaviour which was not classed as ‘male’ was labelled weak, so men found themselves in a macho-male straitjacket.
All business is about people
It’s curious that these perceptions lasted for so long when you consider that all business is about people, at every level. No one enjoys dealing entirely with machines, however huge parts of our humanness were being disregarded as useless.
When taking part in a business deal, even the most strongly alpha male people will need:
- An appreciation and interpretation of the market place, their own position in it and that of the other party.
- A deep understanding of the needs and behaviours of their customers.
- An ability to communicate, influence, persuade and negotiate.
- The combined skills, resources and knowledge of other people.
This reads as an intuitive, perceptive, empathetic, adaptable, creative, persistent and engaging person who is a good communicator. In short, a fully rounded human, with both traditionally male and female traits.
It’s not that we lacked the numbers of people who represented a different side to the alpha male personality, rather that they were shown as ‘other’ and not celebrated for success in the same way.
The evolution has started
Thankfully we are now seeing evolution. Rather than redefining the traits that make a successful business person or career, the shift is in the definition of success.
Mary Portas makes a great point in her book Work Like a Woman, that many who operate outside of the old stereotype do so, not because they lack ambition, but because their definition of success is circular rather than linear.
This means that a person judges their success on a range of values including personal growth, positive relationships and a good life balance, rather than purely money and status. It’s a case of integrating professional and personal success into a career.
The previous male stereotype had a narrower and more vertical career path in mind. Perhaps it was also easier to communicate and gave a simple focus point for a story, making it more marketable than a complex, circular career. It fitted more neatly into a media world of short, bite-sized stories, therefore feeding the dominance of the stereotype.
We see now that if anything, those with a more circular career ambitions are in fact more ambitious because they are striving for progress in more areas of their life. It’s encouraging that the young professionals today tend to lean more towards this style of career as a natural biproduct of their upbringing (there’s more on this in our blog post, Millennials, You’re the secret weapon for any business), so change is becoming inevitable.
What’s my path to success?
We are finding our own paths to success. The change we are witnessing is a combination of broadening our definition of career success and the redefining the traits for success to recognise that there is no one magic solution. This starts with us all finding the confidence within our own skills and understanding how they contribute to success.
When I work with mentees, we often look at writing down five of their strongest traits and then reflecting on how they translate into strengths in a work situation. This shows the value of something that they could take for granted or even perceive as a fault. Contact me if you’d think you’d benefit from some similar support.
Here’s an example with two common traits:
|Trait||Application to Business||Skills|
|Talkative||People open up to you and by building relationships you understand better how to make your suggestion/product/service relevant to them.||Influencing and Persuasion|
|Love for details and facts||You have the broadest knowledge of your products, competitors and the marketplace. You can see patterns and gaps.||Innovative and problem solver|
So let’s champion authenticity and variety as key to business success rather than trying to break down the secret sauce and look at narrow, singular examples. The old stereotypes exist as part of an outdated perception of success. However, it’s not about destroying them, but just about rounding them out to be more circular and removing some of the barriers to entry.
Let’s all strive to recognise and promote success in all its guises.
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