Executive Master of Leadership Blog

Women In Leadership: Nurturing a Healthy Organizational Culture

[fa icon="calendar'] Sep 7, 2018 7:03:00 AM / by Carol J. Geffner, Ph.D

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Carol Geffner
, Director of the Executive Master of Leadership Program at the Sol Price School of Public Policy talks about the importance of organizational culture, women in leadership, and offers three lessons for restoring trust and psychological safety in the workplace.

Workplace Culture

At a global, national, and even local glance, workplace culture seems to be quite a timely issue. All of a sudden, organizational culture is making it into the mainstream and the headlines of the news. Why is this happening?

Well known management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker said it years ago, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Most of you who have been working for a lot of years know that this is very true. Workplace culture, once established, is very difficult to change. It takes intention. It takes courageous leadership. It takes risk and focus.

We're living in a time when the issue of lowering barriers and opening doors to women in leadership roles is on the main stage. Why is that?

Well, one, because the statistics show that women are underrepresented in the C-suite and in boardrooms. Two, Millennials are taking hold and they're letting their voices be heard in a very different way than prior generations. And three, the evolution of the workplace is such that gender and diversity are now very much front and center. Diversity is critical.

Women in the workplace

Women bring to the organizational setting somewhat of a different set of inclinations than many men. We have to be careful. This isn't intended to stereotype men and women. But we know, again, from research, that the language women use is somewhat different.

We know that there is a greater inclination for women to collaborate and build relationships as a way of dealing with problems. We also see that women oftentimes will work intentionally toward building a trusting workplace environment. At a time like this, it's important that we optimize and listen to what's happening on a global stage around the “Me Too” movement and “Time's Up” movement.

As a result of that, we're likely to open doors to highly capable women who may not have come to the fore in past times.

We're living in a time right now in which many people do not feel as if they're voices are being heard. That brings us back to the idea, the concept, of psychological safety. We're living, in organizations, in a government, in businesses, and at a point in history in which people are starting to use their voices at the same time that organizations are having a difficult time allowing different perspectives to rise up. 

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3 Lessons For Restoring Trust and Psychological Safety

At a time like this, especially if your organization is facing any issues around trust or the lack of psychological safety, we have to ask ourselves, "What does it take to restore trust?" And, as you would imagine, it requires the help of a lot of different elements.

1. Cultivate Empathy

What I mean by this is that everybody has to hold up a mirror and ask themselves, "What am I doing...not intentionally, but what am I doing that might shut someone else down? What am I doing that might give off an impression that I'm not listening openly to someone else's point of view, one with which I don't even agree?" So it starts with me. That's lesson number one.

2. Acknowledge Others

We need to acknowledge others for their contributions. Again, this isn't about agreeing with an idea or a concept. It's about saying, "I hear you. I'm listening to you. Here's what I'm going to do with that information,"whatever the next step is. It's letting the person know that, I'm not just listening to you, and then going to put it away. But this is how we are going to discuss it further. Whatever your opinion is on the idea or concept.

3. Speak Truth To Power

Now, this is easy to say. It's hard to do. Speaking truth to power takes personal courage. It also takes working in an organizational environment in which formal leaders make it safe for you to speak. One of the things that happens to executives as they rise in a hierarchy, is fewer and fewer people are willing to tell them the truth. They'll tell them the good news but they won't necessarily tell them the bad news.

Everybody who's in a formal leadership position has to make a commitment that, "I want to hear the bad news as well." Because that's the only way we grow. That's the only way we improve. It's our failures, our mistakes, and our unintentional errors that can trip us up. And we don't learn from them if folks around us are not willing to discuss them. So this lesson is about speaking truth to power.


Keeping An Open Mind and Looking At Other’s Strengths

Many of you might be working in organizations that have made mistakes in the past relative to being trusting workplaces. When you're working in, or studying such an organization, one of the fundamental questions is, how do you restore trust at a time when people are asking questions, are suspicious, and may not believe what is said? We're watching this happen all over the world. This really is a global phenomenon. So there are some simple steps that each one of us can take while the large organization, system, or institution is examining their set of questions.


On a personal level, I have to make sure that I'm open to hearing points of view with which I don't agree. I have to actually ask ... I need to be proactive in asking people who are sitting across from me, "What do you think about this? How do you interpret a situation?" Because it's my fixed mindset that will get in the way of my being able to connect with, build a relationship with, and actually move toward building trust with another person or a group of people.


Another step I can take to build a trusting environment is I can acknowledge other people around me for the strengths that they bring. We have a tendency, when we're in organizations, to always look at the gaps and the problems. But you know what? It's the strengths that bring us the farthest. So as a formal leader, I need to make sure that every day I'm reaching out to people to say, Thank you. I appreciate what you just did," in a really authentic way. That is one small building block in establishing a foundation for long-term, trusting relationships.

Topics: Organizational Culture, Women Leadership

Carol J. Geffner, Ph.D

Written by Carol J. Geffner, Ph.D

Carol J. Geffner, Ph.D. is Professor of the Practice of Governance, Management and Policy at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and Director of the Executive Master of Leadership Program. Dr. Geffner is well known for her thought leadership and advisory work with multi-sectorial organizations on improving human and organizational performance and the capacity for sustainable success.

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