I wrote and presented this paper in 2000 at a Project Management Conference in Cairns Queensland Australia. I have published it again here unedited and as presented in 2000. It was one of the most read whitepapers on my previous company website and still resonates today.
Dealing with the ‘Boys Club’
Susanne Moore, Principal Consultant Synergy Management Solutions Pty Ltd
Project management can be affected by the quality of the project manager’s organisation and the organisation’s management. The integrity of the organisation and its competency affect both the project outcomes and the team members involved. Traditional methods of management can incorporate a number of negative influences and one of these is the ‘Boys Club’ mentality. When this mentality is present it may be actively promoted or passively allowed to exist, but in either case will still have an impact on management decisions. This paper identifies the practice and the impact of this practice on the project culture and project team, and also discusses ways to identify and manage this impact.
WHAT IS THE BOYS CLUB – What are the Symptoms?
Managers with strength, commitment and integrity are ones who can direct, inspire and change the future. Why be a manager who does something because he or she ‘feels’ that they should, or who wants to project an image that makes them ‘look’ as if they are keeping pace with the rest? How much more productive can you be if you are inspired and empowered with the tools to help you create and lead?
An effective manager is someone who is not only focused on helping to achieve the mission statement of the organisation, but someone who will do this with enough understanding of the human needs of their staff as to allow individual growth. In other words, they “effect” the achievement of their mandate whilst achieving a balance and sense of community with the people they are tasked to manage. Don’t think that the ‘Boys Club’ affects you? You may be a part of it without even knowing! And you probably are, or least you will have felt, the effects of the ‘Boys Club’.
This white paper explores the impact that the ‘Boys Club’ has on the individual, the project and the organisation. You may well realise how you too have been manipulated, you may recognise that you have done things you’ve felt bad about in retrospect – or you may have felt comfortable in certain environments, which promoted your ‘specialness’. This is particularly evident in some industries such as the medical and legal professions where a certain level of stature as well as professional qualifications must be attained before you ‘belong’.
Does your organisation demonstrate follow through and commitment? You will know of examples where incompetent people are promoted over and above others who seem better suited to the position. What about the manager who demands that things be done on time, yet will not take responsibility for addressing issues, which you may have previously raised, and which you knew would impact on productivity. There are managers who use a technique where they’ll “put it back onto you” or tell you that you are not a ‘team player’, this is a blame culture and doesn’t resolve issues. The ‘team’ that these managers could very well be referring to is the ‘Boys Club’. Have you ever experienced the following?
- Example: After bringing numerous issues that will inevitably delay your project to the attention of your manager without successfully achieving any resolution, you are eventually responded to in a hostile manner with “You mean you didn’t get this project finished on time! Why?” These managers prefer not to take responsibility for their own lack of planning, direction and inadequate mentoring, preferring to ‘push it back’ to the team member involved.
- Example: Picture the situation in a sales driven organisation where the sales person has repeatedly spoken to his or her superior about the difficulties in getting particular client accounts. The sales person has asked the superior a number of times to assist them by coming out to the client’s site for a further visit to help “clinch the deal”. But at the weekly sales meeting the superior says in front of all the staff: “Steve, how come we haven’t got these sales figure up? Do you need help or something?. The public inquiry in front of the staff member’s colleagues says it all in that one sentence. This manager has failed to take responsibility for their own inaction and is modelling this behaviour to others. This shows a lack of strength in this managerial style and may even be supported by senior managers in the organisation.
Ever feel like you don’t belong? Like everyone is against you or you can’t seem to get anyone to understand you. Women often experience men talking over the top of them in meetings or being patronised by a bunch of men who have banded together to provoke or embarrass them. They are intimidating and bullying the person by enlisting the support of other ‘Boys Club’ members. If this happens to you on your project, it will affect your project outcomes. You will need to pull your team back into line, as this can be as subtle as an odd remark said in haste or aggressive, such as when people are forced to leave the workplace.
THE HISTORY OF ‘BOYS CLUBS’
Let’s look at the origins of the ‘Boys Club’. Over many centuries our business foundation has been built on power and is controlled by hierarchical organisational structures. The church is a classic example of this; it set the scene and was followed by the medical and legal practices and then corporate business practice. Another ‘Boys Club’ tactic is to exclude certain groups, such as women, ethnic groups or people who just don’t belong. The excluded are those who don’t play the game and who question the behaviour and ethics of others. You don’t even need to be vocal in your questioning and in some cases; the mere fact that you as a person demonstrate integrity can make you the target of a leading figure within the ‘Boys Club’ whose job it is to uphold and fortify the other members positions and rank. Alternatively, if you are different in any way, you may be seen as a threat to the comfort of those in the club. It is uncomfortable to be questioned.
Women, (provided they are not actively taking part too), are particularly good at showing up the inadequacy of the ‘Boys Club’ and it is not so much because of their gender but the way that they do business, what drives them and how they communicate. ‘Boys Club’ behaviour in managers has been in existence for centuries, so many people do not know any other way of managing. They see this as a safe environment, but it also an environment that isolates and insulates people.
Some characteristics of ‘Boys Club’ members are that;
- They have poor self esteem;
- They display poor communication skills by not looking others in the face or by yelling and barking orders;
- They display arrogance and are proud of it;
- They demonstrate personal insecurity;
- They are unable to effectively delegate tasks and demonstrate trust in others;
- They exhibit controlling behaviour;
- They engage in secretive behaviour;
- They are expert at deflecting blame onto others, and;
- They are expert at manipulation and ‘Setting Up’ others for failure.
The impact of ‘Boys Club’ practices on projects
Understanding the impact of ‘Boys Club’ practices is very important if you are to be a professional Project Manager. You don’t have to partake in any of the practices, but you must be aware of them. If you choose to not play along with this game and then start showing up Boys Club members and their practices, you can experience terrible consequences especially if you are a contractor or consultant not protected by your parent organisation’s procedures and policies. At a recent voluntary performance appraisal my Project Director concluded that he would not recommend me as a project manager in his organisation because; “I wasn’t a good travelling companion” yet he was unable to describe what he meant by this.
I could have taken this to mean all sorts of things and if I was younger might have thought that this could constitute sexual harassment. However, I smiled to myself and realised that I had demonstrated competency, integrity and this had ruffled the feathers of this Project Director. This was in spite of the fact that my clients were happy, the team was happy and the project had completed successfully.
The nature of the Information Technology industry means that many projects are doomed to failure. Many information technology companies have been successful in the past because they have leveraged off the inadequate knowledge of their clients. This often leads to a whole mechanism for cost cutting in the proposal stage and recovery in the project stage. This means that for a project manager to succeed they must make up the ground already lost in the proposal stage by getting the client to approve additional contract variations throughout the course of the project. This practice is slowly declining and will continue to decline as clients become more aware of technology and the impact of the technology on their business. In fact, it is usually the project managers that are competent and can complete projects successfully who are the ones who are not promoted or the ones whose contracts are not extended. These are often the project managers who have everything ticking along happily and are not making any waves. The project goes along almost unnoticed – except by the client. The ‘Boys Club’ rewards incompetence because it means that ‘Boys Club’ members can be safe in the knowledge that no one is competing with them and more importantly no one is showing up their own failings. Of course, this is not true in reality and many people will mumble behind backs complaining that this is not right or that needs to be fixed. Instead of addressing the problems head on and assisting those people to become more secure and perhaps retraining and supporting them – bravado runs rampant. Managers ‘talk it up’, put others down, or become glamorous charismatic individuals that can manipulate others with their ‘smoke and mirrors’ techniques, and because everyone else is playing the game – this behaviour continues. This can have serious repercussions for your project if you need assistance, support or quick decisions from these managers.
It is not just women who come up against this practice; anyone can experience the effect of being kept out of something or be amongst managers and co-workers that are behaving secretively. Conversely, it is not just men who are members of ‘Boys Club’, but men, unlike women, have had access to them for longer. Many of the corporate management practices we see today are a direct result of bullying in the school system. Female members may be overachievers, try-hards who don’t know how to use their own ‘womanpower’ and do not recognise the great strengths of female management. We are all impressed by Boys Club status and power, we love people with power, are impressed by slick cars and glitzy presentation. Women swoon and promote this even further as it has been an achievement to marry a man with power and when they do, they tell everyone ‘how wonderful’ their partner is, so they continue to support and promote ‘Boys Club’ behaviour. Being an ‘arrogant bastard’ is good and is admired by ‘Boys Club’ members and others, but when this is applied as a management style in the workplace it can be challenging. This very arrogance can be detrimental to ‘Boys Club’ organisations, an early example from the Information Technology industry being the founders of Microsoft, who were so shunned by the large corporates of the day. These corporates missed opportunities by being blinded by ‘Boys Club’ ethics and not being open to outsiders and change.
There are many examples of ‘Boys Club’ behaviour and where the ‘Boys Club’ has turned on one of their own. People strive to belong to special groups and in some cases will compromise themselves just to belong. ‘Boys Club’ organisational culture doesn’t promote a consultative method of management, more like a ‘do as I say’ mentality. You will find this occurs a lot on projects where we are told, “I don’t care how you do it, just get it done! ‘. These are often the managers who are late for meetings and don’t return calls. On the surface this sounds okay, except that the actions that some will take to get the job done can be extreme. Project managers may overwork their team members and be tempted to cut costs and deliver an inferior product or service to the client.
The main problem with the ‘Boys Club’ culture for project managers is that if you chose to play the game, there is no way back when you identify a problem. Many people in particular, ‘talk it up’ and spend a lot of time speaking in public to others about their problems, their managers problems and the organisations problems and how they would solve them. It is difficult in this situation to then ask for help from the very areas you have been complaining about.
To effectively deal with this practice, we need to operate on at least two levels. This is often difficult where there is little management support and indeed, in some cases this behaviour is modelled from higher-level management, so complaints to that area will be fruitless. You need to recognise the game that is being played and decide whether you will play it and how you will participate. It is much harder to achieve success if you don’t recognise what is going on and continue to blame yourself or worse still promote the game without knowing it. You may think you are avoiding this by working harder or asking project staff for more and more difficult tasks to be completed in shorter and shorter time frames. Why? You will start to look good in the eyes of the ‘Boys Club’ and feel that you belong. But this won’t work as you won’t feel good, and the fact is that this won’t satisfy the ‘Boys Club’ as it is much more complicated than that. We need to understand the causes and characteristics of this practice. These can be many and varied but will stem from early parenting, social pressures or learned behaviours throughout the career of the individual.
Many organisations actually promote this behaviour and those that continue to say ‘yes’ when required, don’t make waves and model the behaviour of senior management, are the people who get promoted. This is common in organisations that have a competitive and controlling culture – in their marketing material they may describe themselves as ‘dynamic’ and at the ‘leading edge’ of current technology. In many of these types of organisations, projects can suffer as little real decision-making is carried out and even less support is given to project managers. Great promises and statements are made to clients without really supporting the project managers who are implementing those promises. It is in these organisations that projects can fail because there is no avenue for failure, that is: there is no way for project managers to say that there is a problem. This can lead to compounded problems where the end result is a project that is completely off the rails. To cover this – manager’s .talk it up and create a high profile for themselves. It is the projects that are managed badly, which are in lot of trouble who get all the attention. It may seem like this is not good attention, but in a Boys Club, success at the job at hand is not the only reward. Senior managers come running to assist or to berate; this is great as it gives them a sense of authority, control and importance. If you follow the Boys Club game, you as the Project Manager can lap this up, be humbled but also be charismatic in order to give outsiders the impression that all is well and that you and your senior manager have it under control.
In reality, projects should not get to this stage, but the point that I am offering here is that in some cases it is in the best interests of the person or persons to manage projects doomed for failure. This culture leads to project managers and team members who are ‘really busy’ – they are the ones who don’t return email messages, always use their voice mail and have an assistant who can never find them. Many people see this person as a high achiever – but really, they are undisciplined, overstressed, unorganised and seeking the approval of senior ‘Boys Club’ members, and yes, often these are the people who are promoted. They are the ones whose project team resources are stretched to the limit. Other project managers, with dependencies on the first project, will often do whatever is needed themselves, in order to get their own work done, and in fact continue the cover up.
It is imperative that they keep up this façade at all costs. If you are the project manager for another project and have to deal with this person, you will find it very difficult to get resolution and closure on issues. The danger for you is that if this person sees that you are on to them, they will enlist the help of other Boys Club members and become frantic in their activity. You may do this without saying anything; the mere fact that your own project is successful will unsettle the insecure Boys Club member.
It is the people who speak out and expose incorrect practice that are usually targeted, so by understanding the cause of Boys Club behaviour, you can address the insecurities of these managers without becoming a victim yourself. Some of the ways you can do this are by;
- Helping senior managers feel comfortable when communicating with staff by removing posturing, pretension and false communication;
- Demonstrating and feeling empathy for Boys Club members and their actions, removing insensitivity;
- Showing how to relate to each other on a personal basis – not boss/employee, by being able to make eye contact with subordinates;
- Encouraging Boys Club managers to be more approachable;
- Encouraging subordinates to speak up and put forward ideas without fear of rejection or retaliation, and;
- Encouraging subordinates and peers to have a more rounded approach to the working environment. Encourage think time, and make space for employees to express family and community needs.
Avoid being judgmental, provide support and encouragement and most importantly point out the hazards of this type of behaviour to the person and to the organisation. Unless the people who are continuing this practice are included in the solution – a solution will not be successful. For the person who is being targeted by the Boys Club, the best solution is to build inner strength and integrity. Define the way that you want to work, i.e. what are your principles, what is your preferred business practice, how do you like people to treat you, is there any
behaviour that you will not tolerate and support. Once you have this mapped in your life, study the game, but don’t support it. That does not mean that you should set yourself up as a victim – it means that you will not continue to partake in unacceptable behaviour and practice, i.e. you will not support it. This may mean staying silent when words and behaviour are against your beliefs, or it may mean speaking out when you have assessed the risks.
Identify and acknowledge the games and game playing tactics of others. Decide the course of action in this event. Remain consistent in your actions. Stick to your game plan. Come down hard when people cross your lines in the sand; learn to identify ‘Set-Ups’ as a result of controlling behaviour. Identify the behaviour in others, which is potentially damaging to you and take evasive action. Build on your inner strength. Participate in personnel development courses. Encourage others to strengthen themselves, educate your team members and peers, and demonstrate strength and professional behaviour. Stay calm and don’t buy into disputes where you will compromise yourself. Ask authentic questions, be interested and leave the yelling to ‘Boys Club’ members.
Team members will feel good about themselves and their decisions, and will act consistently. This will create an environment of security around them which will, in turn, affect the behaviour of others. Like naughty children who recognise when a parent or authority figure will not be easily swayed. Encourage team members to ‘let go’ of issues by taking an active rather than a passive role in their decisions. If you have worked to the best of your ability and still the ‘Boys Club’ mentality exhibits itself, actively decide whether to confront it or “let go’. The object here is to reduce your stress. Demonstrate integrity to those around you but be aware that this may have negative responses from those who lack integrity, as this will be seen as a threat to them, they may become withdrawn or aggressive.
Know that you are making a difference, ask yourself, “If I had to take responsibility for everything I feel and everything that comes out of my mouth, what would be the rest of the sentence?” This will force you to think and reflect before making a decision when you are unsure. You cannot change the whole organisation if it doesn’t want to change, remember implement your action plan in small chunks. If you try to do too much you will become frustrated and a prime target for ‘Boys Club’ tactics. Focus on your project and the goals of your team. Reacting with aggression to aggression rarely works and is more likely to end in a confrontation with no resolution. It creates a hostile environment and will add to your frustration and feeling of isolation. It may also jeopardise your ability to get the resources you need to complete your project successfully.
Avoid creating chaos – people who operate in ‘Boys Club’ are usually there because of the perceived safety. They may react in a hysterical way traditionally attributed to woman in stressful situations, e.g.: if you are not satisfied with a situation – think through the problem; go to the person with an idea of a solution. If you just walk in and start shouting and reacting in a hysterical manner you will be dismissed quickly. Avoid trying to control the situation. People who create an environment where they can be in control are often insecure and resort to manipulation. When a crisis happens to these people, they are unable to cope effectively. They are no longer in control and they have isolated themselves from others who can help. This creates frustration, anger, aggression and leads to staff that are unproductive, de-motivated, isolated and propagates insecurities in teams. ‘Boys Club’ can flourish in this environment. In management, this can lead to a lack of accountability, deflection of blame and secret plotting and a lack of communication to others.
Ultimately, for ‘Boys Club’ behaviour to change, we all need to actively work to change it. Not by career suicide, but by managing your team effectively and demonstrating ways to deal with the ‘Boys Club’ in a professional manner. Help others to learn how to deal with the ‘Boys Club’ behaviour and promote the project management practice as a practice, which does not have to be chaotic and unsuccessful – but can lead to the successful completion of projects with happy clients and team members.
Demonstrate to your children, spouse and friends that you value what you stand for and you do not promote behaviour that is detrimental to others. Actively identify ‘Boys Club’ behaviour in politics and the news and talk about it to others. Demonstrate visibility and transparency in your management, be open and honest and manage the best project you can. The ultimate way to deal with the ‘Boys Club’ is to exist in the environment without taking part in it and to promote the alternatives. Continue to demonstrate your values and assist others to identify and ‘Deal with the Boys Club’.
Copyright Susanne Moore 2000
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