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Do you realise the value of difference?

Feeling part of a team is motiving, energising and good for the bottom line. Feeling like an outsider costs us our sense of wellbeing and lowers the value we contribute to the organisation. Understanding the diversity between male and female brains is an opening for us all to feel like we belong and to realise the value of difference.

“Which technology will win in the [energy] race to net zero?” This question came from the male chair of a panel discussion on net zero I recently attended. The response from one of the female panel members was: “It’s not about the competition, it’s about collaborating to find the best solutions.” As the discussion evolved, the chair came back to: “Gas versus hydrogen, come on, which side are you on?”

I couldn’t invent a more on-point embodiment of how female and male brains differ.

Difference is a great resource, but the snag is we are set up to respond to it as a threat, at least initially. Our threat response is responsible for a good deal of disfunction in relationships and lost value in organisations. It is part of a biological cycle that either sustains or erodes our individual energy, motivation, and ability to perform. Understanding how we create conditions where it is safe to express difference, embrace it and draw on its potential is a duty of care for leaders, and it has bottom line value.

Our sense of having something in common with a group, of belonging, is one of the strongest motivational drivers we have. When we come in to contact with other people, our brain makes the unconscious judgement of whether they are part of our “in-group” or “out-group”. An in-group judgement triggers a thrive response – our emotions feel good, energy is directed to the higher functioning parts of our brain, and we relax and feel motivated to collaborate and find solutions together. High performing teams know how this feels.

But if our brain decides on out-group, our motivation to openly engage with others is zapped. Uncomfortable emotions prepare us to fight, flight or freeze and all our energy, focus and motivation is consumed by dissipating the threat. If you’ve ever worked in a team or organisation where you feel a bit like an alien, then you know how this feels. Maybe you’ve felt this as a female in a mostly male organisation, or maybe as a male in diversity discussions where male behaviour is under scrutiny.

Lanz and Brown’s (2020) research with corporate clients found that people with male brains were more likely to generate a thrive response at work; and up to 30% of brain power is lost from the organisation to the threat response. Not all the 30% lost can be attributed to feelings of not belonging, but if most of the brain power lost is from female brains, then there’s a good chance that out-group feelings are contributing.

How can leaders tap in to that wasted value, to shift people from a threatened alien state to a thriving member of the team? A good place to start is recognising the biological differences between male and female brains, as summarised in the diagram below:

Applying these male and female brain differences to the panel discussion I described earlier, I hope you can now understand why I saw it as embodying those differences.

It’s worth mentioning that the differences are not absolute. People who identify as male can have a brain that is structured and operates in ways that are more typical of a female brain and vice versa, so there is a spectrum in play. The underlying biology (structure, connections, hormones) lays the blueprint for male and female differences at birth. Then our experience of the world, mostly in the early years, eg with parents, teachers, siblings, etc, dictates the extent to which our different biology is reinforced or changed (epigenetics), and whether our behaviour conforms more to the cultural norms for men, women or another identity.

My own brain measured up as quite male, which for someone who identifies as female was a bit of a surprise, but on reflection is no surprise after 30 years in the energy industry. The point is it’s not just a spectrum, there’s a whole tapestry at work.

It takes sustained effort for leaders to hack these biological systems and shift organisations to be more inclusive of all genders. Accepting there are differences is a good place to start. Then it’s about listening, inviting different genders to describe how they may come to feel excluded or different, and allowing ourselves to engage at an emotional level. Only when we really feel what it’s like to be different can we open the door to appreciating and valuing people who aren’t like us. It’s the same door through which we allow others to become part of the same group, to thrive and realise their full value, because we ourselves have changed a little bit.

Not listening, assuming sameness and keeping the door closed costs leaders 30% of the brain power in their organisations, and then requires spending to hire new talent as the chronic threat response leads people to opt out or burn out. It’s a bottom-line no-brainer – I can’t think of a project to get to net zero that doesn’t require collaborative solution finding. A thriving alliance of different gender brains will lead us there faster.

If these themes resonate with you then I invite you to connect with me and start a conversation.

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