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Workplace Diversity: Let's Close the Power Gap at Work

Workplace Diversity: Let's Close the Power Gap at Work

By: Jane Hyun and Audrey S. Lee, authors of FLEX: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences (Harper Collins Publishers)

What does the power gap at work look like?

Misunderstood and undervalued, these are workers who could offer tremendous assets to their companies.

Fluent leaders who can spot them and are able to close the power gap with them can leverage their diverse talents to the benefit of the company’s bottom line and the workers’ career. Managers who refuse to budge stand to lose key talent and market share.

Here are three examples of workers caught on the wrong side of the power gap in their organizations:

Meet Gina: Gina is a marketing executive at a major auto manufacturer. She often sits in on design meetings with the all-male engineering staff.

In the meetings, she’s made a few suggestions about car accessories that would appeal to women. She’s also asked that they add a new step in the design process: taking into account information drawn from female focus groups.

The VP thinks the system is fine as is. After all, that model has run without a hitch for years. He thanks Gina for her suggestions, but never follows through on them.

What’s lost: Gina’s perspective on how women, a critical demographic, make purchasing decisions; a sense of inclusivity that makes the customer feel part of the product design. Gina feels devalued in her team.

What her manager could gain by closing the power gap: A new approach to innovation. New insight into buyers’ wants and needs. A leg up on the competition by listening to customers’ specific feedback.

Increasingly, research seems to suggest that men and women communicate inherently differently. Because there has been so much tangible progress with regard to women in the workplace, talking about the power gap between men and women can be very uncomfortable.

People don’t want to highlight the differences between men and women -- they want to point out the similarities. Yet this obfuscates the differences and minimizes the fact that dominant communication models in most boardrooms are still essentially “male.”

It’s no wonder misunderstandings in workplace communications continue to arise along gender lines.

Meet John: John is a twenty-three-year-old recent college graduate who hit the ground running. He’s already put himself on the fast track and continues to press for an international assignment. Yet most days, at exactly five o’clock, he’s out the door. He sits on the board of a start-up nonprofit that provides after-school tutoring for inner-city middle school kids.

John has been coming in late recently, but instead of picking up the phone and calling his manager, he sends a text. In fact, John seems to spend a huge amount of time tapping away at his iPhone instead of getting out there and building relationships with clients face-to-face.

No one confronts him about this behavior, thinking, Kids are just like that. Yet no one is fast-tracking him to the international assignment that he has been vocal about pursuing since he was recruited, either.

If he can’t build in-person relationships with people in the United States, how will he be successful in another culture?

What’s lost: An opportunity to channel John’s energy and team spirit and extend it outward into client relations and outreach into the broader community. John feels dismissed and grows increasingly disengaged.

What his manager could gain by closing the power gap: John’s ability to work 24/7 to meet a deadline. He can go full steam ahead when he’s excited by a project and can work on it, with no rules or restrictions, in the company of his peers.

An added plus is his ability to get the word out about a new product using technology and social networking.

As companies welcome growing numbers of Generation Y into the workplace, we come up against yet another “ouch” point. In a hierarchical culture seniority is afforded respect and, traditionally speaking, age equals experience. The older you are, the more revered you are in your organization.

Yet Millennials are often frustrated by what they see as business as usual. They crave flatter organizations where collaboration can occur organically across different departments to solve business problems. They exhibit more fluid decision making, and have the ability to use new technology and new systems of communication to change the way business is conducted.

Meet Justin: Justin is second-generation Chinese-American with an MBA; he works as a senior financial analyst. He finds his company highly political, with everyone jockeying to win the favor of the senior VP.

“Although I grew up in the States, I grew up in a very traditional Chinese family where we were rewarded for keeping our mouths shut and never questioning authority,” he says.

In Justin’s culture (and countless others), junior people defer to senior people--even if those senior people are sometimes wrong.

For these employees, not speaking up means showing deference to the boss.

What’s lost: Justin is a top-notch analyst. If he doesn’t feel recognized, he will leave.

What his manager could gain by closing the power gap: Justin’s bicultural assets; language abilities and a larger, unrecognized external network, including his family connections in Asia.

Multicultural workers who are expected to promote their own accomplishments in order to get ahead, drop by the boss’s office to shoot the breeze or pitch an idea, may find themselves completely at odds with their own deeply ingrained value system regarding respect and authority.

The result is dissatisfied managers, bewildered workers, and a systematic breakdown of communication.

Adapted from Flex: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences by Jane Hyun and Audrey S. Lee. Reprinted courtesy of HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

About the Authors
Jane Hyun
is an internationally renowned executive coach and global leadership advisor to Fortune 500 companies, MBA programs, and non-profit organizations. She is the author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. She has appeared in a variety of media outlets, including CNN, CNBC, NPR, Time, Fortune, CEO, Working Mother, and Crains

Audrey S. Lee is a sought-after executive coach, speaker, and global leadership & diversity strategist who consults with Fortune 500 companies, universities and non-profit organizations.