Career / Speaking Out / Work Culture

Woman on top: Leading a team is about listening to the team

. 6 min read . Written by Shobhna Deepak
Woman on top: Leading a team is about listening to the team

I was a project manager for a gaming-asset design company and as easy as I found managing the projects I handled, it was managing people where I learnt my biggest lessons on the job.

As a part of my last project, I was to handle a team of young boys and girls. They were a wonderful team with unparalleled skill sets. But it did take a while for me to earn their respect as well as acceptance.

Saying sorry at work is not as hard as it appears

At work, most of my retorts to team inefficiencies and disagreements were handled with defensive arguments. I thought my reactions were always logical and obvious towards the team’s actions. After all, I could never be wrong with years of experience backing me.

While in school, we have always been taught that there is only one right answer and the teacher knows it. So, one never questioned the teacher in the fear of getting into bad books, even if the question might have opened up new perspectives which no one else thought of. And for my team, I was that teacher.

It took me a while to realise that other people’s logic on situations was equally rational to them. It helped open up varied perspectives from a group of smart people working together to solve a common issue, a thought I had never considered before. Once I understood that, it became clear that I was so obsessed about being right which paradoxically made me wrong.

It was not easy for me to accept that I was not the smartest person in the room, that I had my flaws. Realising it myself was one thing, apologising to a room full of people, ready to judge you instantly, was another. But I finally did. Surprisingly, they didn’t judge me for my flaws, rather remembered me for the honest apology on the flaws.

As it turns out, this precisely became the reason the team started warming up to me.

Showing emotions at work is not a sign of weakness

I had a mindset of the qualities I expected a professional to display while at work. These were mostly determined by the conventional leadership examples set in front of me over my years of experience. I had learnt that personal life and emotions should be kept out of professional life. So, if a person from my team showcased an outburst over a conflict, it would be disapproved in my eye as being unprofessional and weak.

With my family and friends, I would handle emotions with kindness. I would spend hours trying to understand why my children threw a fit over a disagreement. But not once would I consider them weak for showcasing their emotions.

It took me a while to accept that at work we are no different. We are after all humans and humans have emotions. The way we showcase it, differs from person to person. By creating an environment that allows emotions to flow freely, we are making the work space a second home to them, especially since they spend most of their waking hours at work.

The more I allowed my natural instincts to guide my reactions, the more easily I was able to empathise with my team. Instead of reacting with judgement, I was now able to listen with an open mind and act with reason.

Cigarette breaks are not the only way to network at work

For the longest time, I felt that openness with the team came better to men over women managers.

I did not smoke, so the ‘Cigarette break’ discussions were out of bounds for me. Giving them mere company as a woman didn’t go well with the false morals of prying eyes. I did enjoy social drinking at parties; but would head home in time to save myself from odd hour transport inaccessibility in the cities considered ‘unsafe for women’. I would enjoy a good laugh at funny jokes. But the bawdy ones were handled better between men, who preferred to avoid any sexual harassment case against them in the high of just enjoying a good laugh.

I felt I was not being included in the inner circle discussions and there was nothing much I could do about it.

Except, there was. It was my family that opened up a new perspective to handle my team. As much as my children enjoyed jokes and parties with their friends, it was on relationships and life beyond parties that they always looked towards their family for support and guidance. So, I decided to handle my team the way I would handle my family.

I started encouraging one-on-one interactions with my team, dedicated slots every month and on-the-go slots whenever they wished. The interactions were about work, but more about what they wished to incorporate as skills beyond company expectations and how we could better their work-life balance for their personal wellbeing.

They developed a sense of comfort with each discussion, and even better openness when they saw that changes were being made for their benefit basis the discussions.

The team did great, they showcased self-motivation and worked harder than ever. Hence, I did great, being accepted in their circle of confidence made me a better manager.

Staying late in the office is not equal to hard work

As the issues started coming out in the open, it became clear that the team disliked the bias in the work-life balance expected by the company. On most projects, overtime was expected from the team and the ones who were able to dedicate the extra hours were seen as the hard-working ones, and hence considered for better promotions and appraisals. Some also tricked the company by spending most of the day enjoying breaks, while spending the night working.

This system worked perfectly for most men (especially bachelors), who didn’t mind spending late hours at work, or even the night. But for some family men and most women, it was not possible and even unfair to expect forced overtime.

This issue hit me first when I was expected to work overtime. I had a family waiting for me at home. I did not have additional help to manage children or chores. Hiring domestic help should be a choice a person makes, depending on what they wish to accomplish in their personal time – but personal time itself was unknown in most working environments!

It hit me even more when I expected others to work, while I myself had constraints against it. They too had families waiting for them.

As a parent, I understood the importance of not just the mothers but even the fathers being home. I understood the importance of encouraging personal time hobbies, since a balance helps one work better.

The company leaders were supportive of fixing the issue and with their help we were able to come up with a solution that required ‘team inclusive’ planning of the projects.

Each member of the team was brought on board with the plans and deadlines. Now overtime was expected only from the ones unable to complete the planned work for the day, following which we either revised the amount of work assigned or discussed obstacles the person faced, in accomplishing the day’s target.

The artists had a better work-life balance and I had peace of mind.

Listening to your team makes them passionate about their work

As much as I thought I had to fight to be a part of the team, it soon became clear how little I had considered them a team while not giving them a chance to discuss their mind.

Openness, confidence and inclusiveness made us into a real family. It gave us the opportunity to bring out our best for the company, and in turn for the company to do its best for a bunch of happy employees.

Every man loves a woman on top, but it’s another thing to expect the same sense of excitement when it’s work-related. As tough as it gets for women managers, all that is needed is a change in perspective that could raise a company above such a clichéd working environment.