Sarah Clarke Research Assistant, York University in Ontario, Winner of the Managing for Tomorrow Essay Competition 1995.
I want to see you in my office now,' yelled Alex across the room. Everyone looked up, startled at the outburst - everyone, that is, except Lesley, who suddenly became very busy and tried to ignore the commotion. Why did the team leader always have to take the blame? What on earth could be the problem this time?
'Oh well,' sighed Lesley, gathering up the project files and following Alex into the manager's office. Alex was in no mood to beat about the bush. Two customers had been on the phone complaining about product quality and minor technical problems with the new system. After a long catalogue of delays, this was the final straw. Someone's head was going to roll and it wasn't going to be the boss's.
'Okay, Lesley,' shouted Alex slamming the project file on the desk, 'can you explain this? And while you're at it, I've noticed you've been rather distracted lately. It's getting harder for me to cover up for you.' 'But, but ...' stammered Lesley, 'I've been having childcare problems and my mother needs constant care ...' 'What you're really saying,' interrupted Alex, 'is that you're not committed. I had high hopes for you, but now, well, promotion seems out of the question. In fact, your future with the company is looking uncertain. What's going on at home is no concern of mine. I need results, not excuses.' Lesley was stunned. There was no answer really, the stress of the last few weeks had taken its toll. Near to tears, Lesley mumbled a few words of apology, assured Alex that things would be sorted out and shuffled out of the office. The company could go to hell. Didn't they know people had feelings?
You will not be alone in assuming that Alex is a man and Lesley a woman, for each has the stereotypical traits which are commonly associated with their gender: Alex is insensitive, domineering and results oriented; Lesley is sensitive, caring and people-focused. But what if Alex was short for Alexandra and Lesley was a man? What would your reaction be then?
This vignette demonstrates that, just as we cannot assume that all men or all women are alike, neither can we conclude that such stereotypical behaviours make men, or women, 'better' or 'worse' managers. The reality is we are all different: we think differently, we react differently, we manage differently. It is our differences which are our ultimate strength, for the pitfalls of 'group think' await us if we were all to think and act in the same way.
To group all men and all women under one heading is also to deny our diversity. Age, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, religious beliefs, disability and gender all mediate management ability. Added to which educational background, culture, class and values are critical factors in governing a manager's response in a particular situation. In a world characterised by increasing complexity and escalating change, diversity of thought and flexibility of action may be the only route to the survival, not only of organisations, but also entire economies and societies and the natural environments with which they are both inextricably linked.
Despite several decades of discourse about the nature of management and the characteristics of the 'best' management styles, few recognise that the interrelated social, economic and environmental problems we now face are too complex for individual managers and single organisations to solve. As such, they require novel management methods and techniques.
It was arguably the Brundtland Commission's report in 1987 on Sustainable Development - development which meets the needs of present generations without compromising the needs of future generations - which most recently alerted the business world to the possibility that today's problems require management which is more holistic in perspective, more systemic in nature and more interdisciplinary in analysis. More conventional management thinking, however, is dominated by a belief in short-term, bottom-line targets and linear, planned strategies which, it is argued, require for their solution managers who are single-minded, results-oriented and hard-nosed. And these are the (stereotypical) traits of male managers. It is not surprising that calls for new styles of management have tended to fall on deaf ears, for it is men who have, until relatively recently, dominated scientific, management and academic thought.
However, it is too simple to argue that a woman's style of management, with its (apparently) more consensual, nurturing and personable characteristics, is the solution to the complex business agenda raised by calls for more sustainable forms of business practice. Men and women, from all races, cultures and walks of life together will forge solutions to the complex problems faced by society. It may be that this new agenda requires businesses to seek alternative management paradigms and new methods or styles of management. Whether a woman's style of management is 'better' for this task is not the issue: what is critical is that we acknowledge that elements of both male and female management styles will be needed to meet the trials that lie ahead.
It is clear that novel management techniques are required for the transformation to more sustainable forms of business practice. This new style of management is precautionary, recognising the dynamic of environmental uncertainty, risk and complexity. It is flexible, anticipating change and embracing the conflict that often accompanies turbulence. It is self-reflexive, evolutionary and open to learning from history. It is inclusive of multiple perspectives and encourages dialogue and negotiation rather than relying on optimisation within known variables. It values justice between peoples and between generations and works within the limits set by the environment rather than adapting the environment.
Those who develop these strengths will be able to build new collaborative partnerships between individuals, organisations and communities, thereby creating equitable and just solutions to interrelated social, economic and environmental problems. These are the managers that will command the respect of future generations. And yes, some women may be more suited to the task than some men.