The Micro Adjustments We Make That Exhaust Us

Do you change yourself to try to fit in?  Or do you try to change the culture, to make it more inclusive for people like you?

It’s a question for everyone who has ever been in the minority at work.

Consider this scenario:

Imagine a man walking into his first PTA officers meeting.  He’s the new PTA Vice President.  As a partner in a big accounting firm, he’s probably been to a million meetings in his life.  But this one is different.  He can’t quite put his finger on why.   What is it, he wonders?  There’s an agenda, the team works through the items, people make comments, they take a few votes, it’s all normal meeting stuff.  But something feels odd.  Is it the pace, or the way they discuss things?  He can’t figure it out.

He agreed to be the VP because his neighbor, the PTA President, asked him.  She was pretty forthcoming about why.  “All the officers are women; we need more men” she said.  “You’re a high profile outgoing guy.  Your presence will help us attract more men.”

He didn’t hesitate.  As a dad who loves to support his kids and community, this was the perfect volunteer opportunity.  Besides, he was used to working with women, at work, and home.  So what if he was going to be the only guy?

The group certainly welcomed him warmly for his first meeting.  So, why did it feel so off?  It took him a while, but he began to realize, it was subtle things.  People told personal stories to support their points.  They laughed more than at most meetings. They didn’t interrupt; they listened to each other intensely.  When someone was quiet, they asked what she thought.  They discussed things deeply, yet somehow they moved between items more rapidly than most meetings he attended.  It seemed haphazard, but they got everything done on time, then lingered to socialize.

Afterwards, he asked the President, “Are all the meetings just like this?”  The President, who was also a businessperson said, “Yes, why do you ask?”

He cited the differences he’d noticed.  The President laughed and said, “Welcome to a world where women aren’t adjusting their behavior for men.”  She went on, “When the default model is female, we can be our natural selves.  In a male dominated workplace, we make all kinds of micro adjustments to fit it.”

The man said, “Wow I had no idea.”  He thought for a minute and asked, “Should I try to change my behavior?”  The President said, “It might be an interesting experiment.”  To his credit, at the next meeting, the man tried adjusting himself to the new normal.  Afterwards he told the President, “That was really hard.  Instead of focusing on my ideas, I’m thinking about how to modulate my voice, adjust my posture, frame my points in a softer way, everything!  It’s exhausting.  I’m so worried about my perception, it’s lessening my contribution.”

This is a true story.  The man is my friend.  He’s a great guy and this experience made him an even better leader.  He says, “Everyone should experience being the minority.  You have no idea how much people are adjusting, and how exhausting it is, until you do it.  Now I help my team challenge our norms, and I’m more sensitive to our defaults.”

He was brave enough and smart enough to try being the minority, how about you?

And in case you’re wondering, yes, the President was me.