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It’s a Mindset Problem, Not a Woman Problem

There’s a huge problem in business today. Women are a very under-utilized asset in the workplace. There are a number in indicators that tell us this. The first is a simple measure of how the percentage of women in the workforce changes as you move up the hierarchy. Below is the data for 2018 taken from McKinsey&Co and the Lean In organization.[1] As you can see the percentage of women in entry level positions is close to the population split. As you climb the hierarchy it gets progressively lower, reaching the single digits at the CEO level. I’ve spent my career in tech in Silicon Valley and unfortunately this segment paints a bleaker picture. I superimposed data taken from Silicon Valley companies[2] (shown in red). As you can clearly see, Tech companies are seriously lagging behind their peers.

Another key indicator comes from examining wage differences. The chart below shows the wage gap between men and women[3]. In the ten years of the 80’s, a 10% gain was achieved. However, the next 10% gain required 30 years to accomplish. Clearly progress slowed and in fact over the last 10 years the wage gap indicates progress has stalled. So, what’s the problem?

I spent my career in tech, starting as an engineer, growing into product management, and on to business leadership. I’ve always been curious about people and why they do what they do. Early in my career, I was asked to lead the company’s first diversity council. This began to sensitize me to differences, and I started observing how people behave and trying to figure out what drove that behavior.

Over many years, I noticed many differences and started to collect them, trying to make sense of the behavior differences I had seen in the workplace. I also did a lot of research and have read more than fifty books that talk about these types of differences.

Initially, when I started speaking about these differences they were often characterized as male and female. Some of these reflect gendered stereotypes, but I finally realized that it wasn’t really “gender” that drove the differences. It really was “mindset differences.”

Let me explain via a couple of examples.

I use dichotomies to show extremes of behavior that are on the same spectrum. I’d like to share just two of these dichotomies that form the foundation of my work. These are powerful in that they can open your eyes to differences that you may not have seen before. They also may give you an “ah ha” when suddenly you recognize behavior that has always left you scratching your head because it just didn’t make sense to you. It didn’t make sense, because you and the other person where on opposite ends of a mindset dichotomy.

First, lets’ look at one extreme. On one side, there’s a group of people where status is one of the most important things to them. It is valued and prized and those within this group compete to see who can gain more status. The second dichotomy also coincides with this group, and it involves independence. They prize this as highly as status and they want to want to make their own decisions and be in control of deciding the when, where, who, and how. An interesting thing about this group is you will never hear them say that “status and independence is the most important thing.” It’s not that they actively think about status and independence. It is buried in their psyche. They don’t say these things, instead you can observe this in their behavior, their choice of language, and in their thinking. It is a mindset. I labeled this group, independent-minded.

Now, let’s look at the other extreme. What’s important to this group of people is connection. They thrive on relationships. They get work done through (because of) their relationships. The secondary characteristic they share is interdependence and for them, the more the better. In fact, the wider their network of connections is, the more they thrive. I called this group, community-minded.

Keep in mind there is nothing wrong with either group, they just have different mindsets and focus on different things. Sometimes, however, it looks like they are aiming for very different goals. I show the two dichotomies below.

The problem comes when these two groups judge each other by their own standards. Misinterpretations run rampant, projects are impacted, people get upset, and often productivity plummets.

An example is in order here. Say a community-minded person begins to share a problem they encountered at work. The independent-minded may speak up and offer solutions to fix the problem. They are trying to demonstrate their knowledge, maintain their status, and get the problem resolved. Their focus is on the problem. But often the community-minded will turn and look at them say, “You just don’t understand,” and walk away. Leaving the independent minded wondering what just happened.

The community-minded may have really been seeking out understanding or validation, rather than a solution. That’s where the “You just don’t understand,” comes from. The two were headed in opposite directions. Interestingly, neither may really understand what just happened. The independent-minded is often left wondering why their perfectly good solutions were rejected. The community-minded feels misunderstood and invalidated. Both people may leave questioning the intention of the other. Left with a conversation void, people will fill in their own blanks about the other persons intent and it’s usually not on the bright side.

It may help to see the same example, when it occurs between two community-minded people. One person opens up with their problems. The other shows their concern by asking questions, not about the problem, but about how the person is feeling. They offer sympathy, “That must have made you feel awful” or “I understand how you feel.” The focus is on the person and the person’s response to the problem, not on the problem itself.

Now, if you take the first example again, flipping the independent and community-minded roles, you get an equally perplexing outcome. The independent-minded person shares their problem with a community-minded person. The community-minded then starts asking questions of the independent-minded about how they feel about the situation. The independent-minded, will try to change the subject, avoiding a potential discussion about emotions, because it is of much less importance to them. When the independent-minded changes the subject abruptly, the community-minded believes they are showing a lack of sympathy and intimacy. Both sympathy and intimacy are critical to experience connection, and it can seem to them the independent-minded are trying to break the relationship.

And in these cases, again, often both parties have no idea what just transpired. Often one party leaves the conversation, either a bit miffed or sometimes visibly upset about the encounter. The other party may be leave not noticing anything is amiss or thinking to themselves, “What exactly just happened?” Rarely is there any discussion between them.

Just these two fundamental mindset differences can show up in myriad of ways, just as insidiously. Let’s say a community-minded person talks about their problem to an independent-minded person. The independent-minded then says, “Oh, it’s not that bad; I’ve seen worse.” (This would be a typical response between two independent-minded people who often play the “I can top that one” status game.) But the community-minded now feels belittled, like their feelings have been discounted. This example also shows how the independent-minded was actually trying to make the conversation symmetrical but because they are on opposite ends of the mindset dichotomy, they ended up creating a very asymmetrical one.

There are several steps that you can take to change this dynamic.

The first is to understand how you operate along these and many other dichotomies that are discussed in You Can’t Fix What You Can’t See. The second is to understand that others may operate on the other end of that dichotomy, and it looks and feels very different to them.

Once you see what is actually happening, you can intelligently open up the conversation. Try an open-ended question, like: “What just happened?” “Seems like we are each trying to accomplish something different, can you share your original objectives for this conversation?” A neutral third-party can even ask these questions.

As a manager, I learned to remind people to: “Tell me how you want me to be.” This could be anything, like: I just need you to listen; I want to introduce you to an idea; I want to brainstorm; I need some referrals to the right people; or I just need to vent. The question has a way of aligning objectives between two people which minimizes the chance of these mindset differences exploding into an issue.

A parting thought, sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to bring these things up, especially in the workplace. Jason Headley made this rather hilarious video in 2013. “It’s not about the Nail” exemplifies both the disconnect and the recovery. Note that the video includes some gaslighting, but it also demonstrates how hard it can be for people to shift mindsets or even recognize that someone is operating out of a completely different mindset. Take note that this work is not easy and often can be frustrating. I assure you there will be rough spots. But if you are earnest in trying to understand the situation, you will be rewarded for the time you invest in understanding your own and other’s mindsets.

If you found this article helpful, please leave a note in the comments. I’d love to hear how it may have helped you. Maybe it offered you an ‘ah-ha,’ “Now I understand what happened in that conversation I had last week;” or even better if you were able to catch a mindset disconnect and get the conversation back on track before it completely derailed. Share your thoughts, as it may help other readers in their journey.

[1] Thomas, Rachel. “Women in the Workplace.” McKinsey&Co and Lean In, 2018. [2] Rangarajan, Sinduja. “Here’s the clearest picture of Silicon Valley’s diversity yet: It’s bad. But some companies are doing less bad.” Reveal News, June 25, 2018. [3] Graf, Nikki; Brown, Anna; and Patten, Eileen. “The narrowing, but persistent, gender gap in pay.” Pew Research Center, Mar 22, 2019.

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