June 19, 2024

There are many reasons offered to explain why women are not reaching their full potential in the workplace. Women lack confidence. Women don’t ask for raises. Women need more training.

Yet the reality is that the major challenge high potential women face in the workplace is not their lack of skill or hesitation to ask for a raise. Their major challenge is understanding how to best navigate in a system that was not set up for them to succeed.

According to Dr. Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist, behavioral scientist and performance coach, “the workplace has a historical culture that continues to have unrealistic expectations of how females ‘should be’”. Klapow, whose work with elite athletes, executives, and investors helps them perform at peak levels, assists women in leadership positions by helping them leverage their own style and navigate with more influence in the male dominated culture.

Defining the toxic work environment

The toxic work environment exists despite generational changes and emerging male leaders who are more insightful regarding biases, because, as Klapow recently shared with me, “men in general are still rewarded or, at the very least, not penalized, for patronizing, disregarding, demeaning, shaming women, and not setting the standards for women that are not equal to men. Many male leaders have never needed to modify their behavior to be more in tune with the needs and styles of female colleagues. Very often even well-intentioned men do not see the biases and inequality in expectations that are placed upon women. The result is a cohort of male and female leaders who perpetuate the psychologically toxic environment.” In a toxic environment, everyone, men are women alike, are in a survival mode which impedes their ability to perform.

Klapow is often called in by corporations to ‘fix’ high potential women. He’s told, ‘They’re having a hard time with communication.’ ‘They’re having a hard time being assertive.’ The unwritten message being women need to be more like men to succeed. And when women dutifully adopt a more masculine style of behavior, they’re perceived as being too strong and unlikeable. They’re perceived as threatening. It’s a no-win situation.

Beyond the Workplace

In addition to women leaders, Klapow works extensively with elite athletes. The dynamics that are present in the workplace very often exist within the teams, schools, and organizations female athletes are associated with. In environments where the competition is extreme, the line between success and failure can be razor thin. The pressure to be the best is ever-present and athletes can easily lose a sense of who they are in a broader context. Female athletes are not only navigating male dominated leadership and communication styles, they are also navigating in many cases the world of NIL (name, image, likeness) business development. As such female athletes are both competitors and entrepreneurs. They are young adults with emerging sense of selves and trying to develop in environments that frequently treat women’s athletics as “less than” entities. As Klapow notes, “I spend as much time with players improving their mental game for their sport, as I do improving their mental game for navigating communications with coaches, media, agents and brand representatives”.

Do we need to fix men, women, or the culture?

“Most men,” Klapow shares, “who engage in these behaviors don’t realize that what they’re doing is gender specific and punitive. From executives to coaches, these men may see themselves as tough, demanding excellence, but they don’t see that that approach is somewhat selective. They don’t realize that when they engage in those behaviors, shaming, intimidation etc., it’s seen as the right thing to do. When men respond to that in an unhealthy way, they’re rewarded for it.” And as Klapow notes, this approach to leadership is not effective for anyone.

Research confirms that younger men have increased awareness about gender equality and the need to foster a healthier environment, yet are threatened by women’s advancement. Klapow has discovered coaching men, that when they agree that the culture must change, they “tend to be open to change until which time you start calling out what needs to change. Then their defensiveness kicks in and the challenge shifts. It shifts from we need to fix the women, to how I, as a male leader, need to learn how to navigate conflict and subtle implicit biases.”

When psychological defense mechanisms drive reasoning, decision making, and judgement, the ability to navigate challenges are hindered. Add to that the intense workplace pressure to succeed, and emotions become front and center and block peak performance.

Because of their desire to be successful, high potential women feel the need to be amazing. Klapow attributes this to societal norms and expectations, commenting that “their desire to be perfect takes them out of who they really are because they’re trying to be more like a man or trying to be perfect.” This puts women at a disadvantage. They get lost in the number of different roles they assume they need to get ahead.

The coaching methodology

Klapow’s methodology focuses on teaching the key psychological underpinnings of toxic behavior. This helps high potential women understand insecurities, psychological defense mechanisms, triggering situations and what unhealthy responses look like. As they learn how male leaders may show up with external behaviors that are masking their internal fears and insecurities, they begin to see opportunities for communication, assertiveness, increased or decreased emotion etc. They learn to read not just the external behaviors but assess the underlying psychological factors that drive it.

The benefit? According to Klapow, “these skills provide a more targeted use of general conversation methods, conflict management approaches, and decisions around the degree of assertiveness. As a result, women are armed with an understanding of the psychology of toxic behavior versus only having a tool box of methods to deploy.”

Learning how their historical experiences drive their present behaviors, how their belief systems may bias their prioritization strategies, and how every interaction they have with someone in the workplace is a melding of their own psychological history and that of the other person empowers women with the information they need to navigate potentially hostile work situations. They learn how to assess, influence, and inspire people from a psychological perspective.

The result? Women have a broader understanding of the people they encounter and an ability to deploy the right tools to achieve their goals.

Finally, Klapow reminds me that from Fortune 100 companies, to small startups, to college and professional athletics, psychologically unsafe environments are not beneficial for anyone. While he may be helping female leaders and athletes, he is trying to create a shift in how the pursuit of success unfolds. He is trying to clean up the toxicity and guide his clients towards healthier and more successful outcomes.

Bonnie Marcus, M.ED, is the author of Not Done Yet! How Women Over 50 Regain Their Confidence and Claim Workplace Power and The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead. An executive coach and speaker, Bonnie is also host of the podcast, Badass Women At Any Age.


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