Does university organisational culture alienate women staff?

Men shaking hands while a woman is taking notesTo tie-in with April’s “Demystifying Finance” workshop, John Arnold, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Loughborough University, examines reports from women university staff on how they experience engaging (or not) with their organisation’s systems and cultures.

My colleagues Sarah Barnard, Fehmidah Munir, Sara Bosley and I are conducting the five-year “Onwards and Upwards” project on the leadership and career experiences of women in academic and professional services roles in UK and Republic of Ireland higher education. This work is funded by the Leadership Foundation, which is now part of Advance HE. Drawing on data from 2,240 women over the first two years of the project (most but not all of whom have participated in the Aurora leadership programme), we have noticed, as others have, that many women find engaging with their workplace systems and culture problematic.

For example, just one fifth of our respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they enjoyed the cut and thrust of organisational politics. Over half reported that they felt they had to behave in ways that did not come naturally to them if they wanted to “get on”. Two in five felt that they conformed to the organisational culture more than they would like to, whilst just 30% reported that they made a point of challenging organisational culture.

On the other hand, there were some signs of greater comfort and engagement too. Nearly two thirds said that when they had power they were comfortable using it. More than half reported that they knew a lot about how their employing organisation runs. This increased from 55% to 66% between years 1 and 2 of our project, but there is a large difference between professional services staff and academics. The former are much more likely to agree. What greater incentive could there be for academic women to learn how to demystify finance!

The Aurora programme seems to make a difference. About one third of Aurora “graduates” report that participating in the programme has helped them be more adept at turning organisational systems to their advantage. The same applies to openly challenging the systems or culture. (In both cases, almost no respondents said that Aurora reduced this). Nearly 60% of Aurorans said that the programme had helped them feel more comfortable in positions of authority.

Despite these impacts of Aurora, we believe it is vital not to place the main responsibility for change on individual women, nor to ”blame the victim” for feeling uncomfortable about engaging with organisational systems and culture. Some of our respondents attributed it to women’s lack of confidence, though many of these pointed out that this confidence issue was itself an outcome of the work environment, not an inherent property of women.

More generally though, our respondents pointed to challenges of gendered organisations (and society more generally), poor access to and/or poorly-run career development practices, and gaps between organisations’ policies and practices regarding equality.

We make 17 recommendations in our Year 2 report (follow this link for a summary). No fewer than 13 of these are aimed at institutions rather than individuals. They include: developing definitions and norms of leadership that allow for a range of styles and skills, closer attention to who gets what opportunities to develop into leadership and other desired roles, and an audit of the distribution of men and women engaging in high and low-prestige managerial and leadership roles within their jobs. And yes, training and perhaps short secondments or work shadowing to see how the organisation really runs (including the finance) with encouragement to academic women to participate would be another good step forward.

The Onwards and Upwards project will run until March 2020.

John Arnold is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University, UK. He is a Fellow and Chartered Occupational Psychologist of the British Psychological Society. John’s research, teaching and consultancy involve all areas of careers and their management from both individual and organisational perspectives.  

How to manage conflict: steering the meeting

A professional couple having a discussion over coffee in a cafe

In the second part of our practical tips on conflict management, the Leading Roles team offer insight into how to handle difficult conversations in a meeting. 

After you have prepared for your meeting, the time has come to you to face your colleague.

A warm welcome
Offer warm greetings with a genuine smile and thank them for sparing the time to see you. Check this is the right time for them and be mindful of potential interruptions and distractions. Be considerate of their comfort and the environment / surroundings.

Offer a structure for the meeting
We like the 3Ps framework: “Purpose, Process, Payoff”, which might sound something like this: “We need to talk about what happened on Monday (purpose).  I really want to hear your opinion as to what happened, and I would like to share mine (process). Hopefully by the end of the conversation, we will have agreed what we can do to resolve the situation to both our satisfaction (payoff).”

Seek first to understand and then be understood
Gather as many facts as you can before sharing your opinions. The other party will probably be grateful for the chance to speak first and at length if it’s an issue they have been troubled by. You could prepare some short focused questions to help the other person give you the full picture from their point of view. Start with open questions and make brief notes (if they don’t mind) of aspects you wish to explore further. Use ‘funnelling’ to explore these topics. Probe gently to make sure you have the pertinent facts.

Remember TED as a tool for clarifying and seeking further information (Tell me…, Explain…, Describe…).

Fair air-time?
Are you doing too much talking? Check in and ask an open question and really listen to what they’re saying.  Be ready to summarise and ‘playback’ what you have heard to demonstrate your understanding.

Respect silence
It can often be very powerful to leave a long pause for thought, and it can be damaging to interrupt someone’s train of thought if the matter is of consequence to them.

Show what cards you can
Promote trust through your body language, for example by keeping your hands visible, relaxed and open. Clenched or hidden hands can send the wrong message and subconsciously provoke adverse reactions.

Listen to the other view
Ask for the other party’s proposed solutions to the situation before stating your own. Having considered both the benefits and consequences of your proposed solutions from both your points of view before the conversation, seek a chance to cover these off during the conversation, and check for consensus on this. If you need to offer feedback, the AID model (and its implied principle of being helpful to the other party) is a useful one: What Action have you seen or heard? What Impact did / will it have? What would you therefore like the other person to do in consequence (Desired behaviour)?

Finally, if you need to offer explanations of your rationale, structure the explanation around three points. Any more and they are more likely to be misremembered.

Be ‘future-focused’
Talk about events of the past, the present business of rectification, and a more positive future.

Thank them for their time
Acknowledge any effort you have seen them make towards a positive outcome, and for any honesty and candour you recognised.

Buy yourself time
If you need to reflect on an outcome, meet again to discuss it. Agree the next steps clearly and repeat or summarise any agreed actions before you part.

If you would like to know more about handling difficult conversations, join us on our Introduction to Head of Department programme. Find out more: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihod

We have further resources on having difficult conversations on our Knowledge Bank. Take a look here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/knowledgebank

Leading Roles comprises of Sharon Paterson, Mike Rogers and Paul Hessey. Sharon is an associate director culture and engagement at MIMA and Teesside University. Mike is a coach, roleplayer and facilitator for several consultancies in the arena of effective communications and leadership development. Paul Hessey is a leadership, management and communication skills expert who has worked across a wide range of sectors including financial services, manufacturing and the NHS.

How to manage conflict: preparing for the meeting

Sharon Paterson, Mike Rogers and Paul Hessey from Leading Roles run an experiential session on having difficult conversations on our Introduction to Head of Department programme. In our first of two blogs on this subject, they share their practical tips on the preparation needed to ensure that difficult conversations are managed well and generate the best outcome for those involved.

Before the meeting ask yourself these questions:

  • Why have this conversation?
  • Who will it serve immediately and what will it bring you?
  • What might be the ultimate benefit (to both of you) of having this conversation?
  • Is the matter trivial or serious enough for both parties to invest time in?
  • What might be the ultimate consequence of not having this conversation?
  • If you’re not going to do it, what are you going to do instead?
  • What might be your “BATNA” (Best Alternative to No Agreement)?

When you consider the longer-term implications, decide whether a good outcome now would damage a relationship with this individual (or wider group) in the longer term. If you have not decided to avoid this potential conflict for legitimate reasons, explain to yourself why a ‘victory’ on this issue is essential for you, or how you might be prepared to compromise in the short term to get more from the relationship over time, or indeed whether there is a way to collaborate with this individual for an even better solution than the one you currently plan to offer.

How can you prepare yourself?
Think about how you can carry your desired mindset into the conversation and even how your physiology can affect your psychology. Try psychologist Amy Cuddy’s Power Posing techniques.

Consider Patsy Rodenburg’s status circle and focus on the following attributes:

  • Curious
  • Open-minded
  • Alert
  • Respectful
  • Listening actively and empathetically
  • Being mindful of body language and tone of voice

If you want to be assertive, courageous, compassionate, remind yourself of when you have done these things well – even if it was in unrelated circumstances – and summon the feelings associated with those times. Develop techniques that will help you to keep calm and manage your emotions. Slow silent counting and breathing deeply can sometimes help.

Being assertive
If you are planning to be assertive, the 5-part assertion tool can help you rehearse being assertive about what you really want or need to happen. This isn’t a script, but you can benefit by thinking about the following in your own terms:

  • What I like…
  • What I don’t like…
  • If you do…
  • If you don’t…
  • What I want / need is…

Are you ‘travelling light’?
You may be carrying ‘baggage’ into the conversation. Is it possible to leave it at the door – the past does not always need to feature in the present.

How can you bring both honesty and integrity to the conversation?
Be very clear about what you can and can’t promise, and about what power and responsibility you have to meet requests. With what status are you entering the conversation? Parent, adult or child? (Find out more about this idea by following this link). Question your assumptions and your knowledge of the context of events, consider why would a reasonable person be acting in this way.

Think about the situation from the other person’s perspective
If you were in their position, how could they be feeling and what might they be thinking about the issue?  (Literally asking these questions early in the conversation should give you a better understanding of both.)  What alternative approach might you offer as a suggestion, if you were ‘wearing their shoes’?

Think about the degree to which they seem to be holding onto their convictions, using what you have observed, rather than assume to be the case. If they have declared outright that the issue is one on which they will never compromise, you may need to re-assess your ability to influence them.

Location, location, location
Taking some control of the meeting environment might help. Your place or theirs or neutral ground? Where might be most advantageous to the situation?

Once you’re satisfied that you are prepared, the next step is to face your colleague. Read the second blog: how to manage conflict: steering the meeting

If you would like to know more about handling difficult conversations, join us on our Introduction to Head of Department programme. Find out more: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihod

We have further resources on having difficult conversations on our Knowledge Bank. Take a look here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/knowledgebank

How to keep an eye on the truth

Picture: The Three Wise Monkeys, a Japanese pictorial maxim which in the West is often used to describe those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.

Picture: The Three Wise Monkeys, a Japanese pictorial maxim which in the West is often used to describe those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.

Recent news stories such as the #MeToo campaign to end sexual harassment in the workplace have highlighted the prevalence of institutional ‘wilful blindness’. This is when people choose to ignore when something negative is happening – even when it is common knowledge. Ahead of the Wilful Blindness Executive Masterclass, Vijaya Nath explains why learning to tackle institutional blindspots is vital to great leadership.

Great leadership requires the integrity to act on and live our values. As a leadership development practitioner and an experienced team leader, like many reading this, I know there are few new leadership secrets or ‘secret sauces’ left. Many leaders who I admire have the ability to act on their integrity, that is, give voice to their values. But this capacity and capability requires thinking space and practice.

One individual who has most enabled me to really reflect on my own practice is former CEO and TED speaker Margaret Heffernan. I’m looking forward to working with her at our upcoming Executive Masterclass on March 15 where she will share her extensive expertise on wilful blindness.

Among other hands-on activities we will be practising building our ‘ethical muscle memory’ which is one remedy for overcoming this important problem. Inspired by the work of Darden Professor Mary Gentile, we’ll explore and strengthen our ability as individuals to not only lead with integrity but act on and live those values we believe are critical to providing ‘just’ cultures in higher education. A culture in which staff and students flourish. Role-playing ethical dilemmas in this way helps us rehearse how to respond and go through appropriate processes.

Margaret’s work over many years has led her to the conclusion that while organisations may be ‘blind’ to their faults, people are not. As leaders, you know intimately what the issues are, so when you come to the masterclass, as well as having personal contact with Margaret, you’ll be able to work in real time on actionable interventions which you can use back in your institutions to change the culture.

Margaret and I share the belief that talk without action does little to bring positive change and this ethos underpins the design of this masterclass. We also know from our work with leaders at all levels that taking time out from the busy world is essential to enable thinking time, talking with leaders who are sharing similar challenges, practising helpful techniques and critically nourishing your leadership muscle strength!

We look forward to welcoming you on Thursday March 15.

Vijaya Nath is director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation. 

Find out more about the Wilful Blindness Executive Masterclass

The final masterclass of the series, Mindful Leadership is now booking. Find out more here.

Olympic medalist Cath Bishop: Support networks are vital

Cath Bishop will join us in July 2018 as a guest speaker at the Aurora Adaptive Leadership Skills day in London. Ahead of her talk in London, we asked Cath some questions about her career and progression into leadership.

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself
I am curious and a keen continual student, which is probably why I’ve had some different and interesting career experiences, from Olympic rower, to diplomat, to motherhood, to speaker and leadership consultant, with a few more ambitions still in the wings!

What does good leadership mean to you?
Bringing people with you, inspiring others to do things they didn’t realise they were capable of, reaching others to make a positive difference in whatever world they are engaged.  And I believe in ‘sweating the small stuff’ – small things matter in my opinion, being kind to others, speaking to the waiter as you do to your most valuable client, valuing others’ opinions and taking time to help when you can.

What would be some of the milestones that you think “that’s a point where my leadership changed”?
The moments of biggest failure and biggest success – when I got things badly wrong, I usually learnt a huge amount in the process and grew personally and professionally through the experience, as well as realising that the world didn’t come to an end.  And when things went well, I realised I was capable of so much more than I realised.

What would you say if someone were to ask you, what makes you most resilient
My ability to look failure in the face and find a way to keep going and keep learning.  I think I am also really self-reflective and probably too self-critical, but the upside of that is that I am always willing and proactive in finding ways to improve and develop myself.

How important do you think mentors, role models and networks are in supporting women’s leadership?
Support networks are vital.  And it’s best for those networks to be as diverse as possible, with people who know you well and are on side, to those who have something to offer that’s new and different, across personal and professional worlds.  I didn’t have one specific mentor or role model, I took lots of things from lots of different people, some I met up close and knew well, some I observed and learnt from, others I read about in books and adapted what I read to work for me.

How can initiatives like Aurora help women and their organisation achieve their potential?
Initiatives like Aurora are so valuable for providing additional networks with all sorts of people with hidden powers you might never have come across. Offering new ways of learning from each other and learning together, different perspectives of looking at the world, and more people who are ‘on your side’ beyond your immediate circle.

Thinking about your career and experiences, what advice would you give your younger self?
To stop worrying about failing – I have always faced failure with courage and found ways to pick myself up and move on, but I wish I had wasted less time beating myself up within that process, and just held my head up high and moved on more quickly.  I would also advise myself to be bolder, to aim even higher and believe in myself, rather than waiting for there to be lots of evidence and lots of people believing I could do it – I needn’t have waited for that.

Finally, do you have an inspiring woman leader, and if so, who?
I had the privilege of rowing and training and developing a lifelong friendship with Dame Katherine Grainger who is one of the best sporting role models I have ever come across, who showed grace, positivity and perseverance in unbelievable amounts time and time again.


Cath Bishop is a former Olympic Rower and diplomat. While working at the Foreign Office she lived and worked in Bosnia and Iraq. After 10 years as a rower and 11 years at the Foreign Office, Cath set up her own leadership and team performance consulting business.

Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.

Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2018-19 will be available soon. 

Know thyself!

After three years and six iterations of the Leadership Foundation’s innovative blended learning programme, Transition to Leadership (TTL), programme director Stuart Hunt reflects on what he has learned and why he believes the programme is so well received by participants.

When we were working on the design of the TTL programme, we were very keen to make sure that it included two elements that are not often seen in open, introductory level programmes of this kind. We have three days face-to-face and about the same amount of time for online and on-the-job learning activities, and we wanted to make the most of this time. We did not want to lecture too much (and we don’t!), nor did we want the programme to involve a lot of reading (there’s plenty, but only limited to Must Read material), but we did want some clear structure with a real chance of participants holding onto some key ideas and actually putting these into practice.  The two elements described below are what emerged from our extended development phase to help achieve these ambitions.

Co-creation
The first approach was that we wanted the process to be one of co-creation. Sure, we provide theoretical grounding and effective models for participants to review and build on, but we also take advantage of the blended and extended nature of the programme to task participants with co-designing and co-presenting their own understandings and applications of leadership based around their own experiences.

This concept of the ‘flipped’ classroom, with participants leading presentations and fielding questions from colleagues lends itself well to the culture of learning in higher education, with typically independent-minded colleagues having the opportunity to explore, challenge, and occasionally provoke, as well as to provide mutual support and personal reflection. It also provides ample opportunity for colleagues to explore the second key theme, that is self-knowledge and with it the great boon of flexibility.

Self-knowledge
Throughout the programme, we ask participants to reflect on their own styles, their own preferences, what they admire in others, what they bring to leadership that is helpful and where they may need the support of colleagues. We do not encourage participants to aim to become that which they are not. We want them to know what they are really good at and what motivates them, and to consciously seek to demonstrate these attributes to colleagues with whom they work. It is only when we know ourselves that we are in any position to deliberately choose to modify our behaviour and to become really skilful leaders. And thus the programme is filled with diagnostics, self-assessments and structured self-reflection activities, plus face-to-face and online discussions to help people understand that others may have very different perspectives.

Enhanced understanding of self
So, the content of TTL is great and I think well balanced, and this is supported by good design, but the real benefit of our programme for participants is the co-creation of understanding based on the perspective of our lived realities, together with a genuinely enhanced understanding of ourselves. Together these approaches combine to enable participants to make choices, so that they can sometimes ‘flex’ from their places of strength in order to be better able to support the needs of others with whom they work.

The programme continues to evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of higher education leaders, however the core of the programme remains tried and tested as a foundation for new leaders. I am genuinely proud of this programme.

The next run of Transition to Leadership will being on Monday 19 March 2018 and run through until Tuesday 26 June 2018. Click here to find out more about what the programme has to offer. 

Stuart Hunt is an independent consultant and has been a key associate of the Leadership Foundation since its inception. He is currently co-director for the Transition to Leadership programme. Stuart is also currently supporting a major cultural change initiative across Ukrainian Higher Education.

The art of being strategic

Doug Parkin, programme director, reflects on the Strategic Dialogue learning activity in module three of the Future Professional Directors Programme. This year the participants were joined by Professor Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton; David Relph, director at Bristol Health Partners; Justine Andrew, director, public sector at KPMG; and Helen Lloyd Wildman, chief operating officer NMITE (during FPD consultant at Royal Agricultural University) and formerly an army lieutenant colonel.

Our Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme, for aspiring leaders of professional services from all areas of an institution, is transformational by design. From the outset, we developed the programme to ensure learning would take place in a range of experiential activities and active inquiry processes.

A great example of this is the Strategic Dialogue, the centrepiece learning activity on the third and final module of the programme. This module is focused on strategy but, rather than take participants through the received wisdom on strategic planning, we focus instead on the art of ‘being strategic’.

Exploring strategic thinking

So, what does it mean to ‘be strategic’?

This question, at the heart of the Strategic Dialogue session, is explored through four different sector perspectives – higher education, health, commercial and the armed forces. The topic is brought to life by four excellent contributors, each a senior figure with strong experience in one of these worlds, who take ‘how to lead strategic engagement’ as the central theme of their presentations.

In the Future Professional Directors programme’s Strategic Dialogue, the contributors present their perspective and are then interviewed by the FPD small groups of participants. By the end of the session each participant group has created their own unique model for strategic engagement.

The bigger picture

For the participants, having the space and time to ‘lift their heads up’ from the day to day issues they face and take a broader look at how their role fits into the whole organisation – and their own responsibility for strategy development and engagement – is a crucially important part of the session says Justine Andrew.

One of the key learning goals is “getting folk to understand what strategic means and stressing that we shouldn’t be undertaking any tasks that do not contribute to the achievement of the corporate strategy,” remarks Helen Lloyd Wildman.

Nick Petford also emphasises the need in uncertain times to understand the importance of differentiating between long-term planning and strategy. Universities should develop a clear and concise single strategic document (in contrast to a myriad of sub strategies), supported by a business or operational plan designed for flexibility. The days when institutions could set a point on the horizon and expect to sail towards it without being quickly blown off course are gone for most of us.

He draws attention to the powerful link between institutional values and strategy: “there are different ways to think about strategy in a complex institution and institutional values are the fundamental building blocks of strategic thinking.”

The active nature of the session brings to life the dynamic nature of strategy and the fact that engaging people in strategic conversations is at least as important as strategy itself: this is indeed the art of ‘being strategic’ in an organisation.

Engaging professional service staff

These vital strategic conversations must be opened up early and widely. For Nick Petford, “professional service staff are key to the successful running of our universities and need to be engaged at all levels of the strategic planning process”.  Through early engagement, professional service leaders can build up a ‘coalition of the willing’ which pays dividends in the future.

Sharing knowledge

The essence of the Strategic Dialogue session is a powerful opportunity for participants to compare and contrast the challenge of strategic engagement by using the stimulus of four very different perspectives and the opportunity to probe the strategic mind-sets of successful senior leaders.

The spirit of learning around the session is energising, profound and mutually shared, which also offers deep learning opportunities for the presenters as well as the participants.

For the sector more broadly, the programme develops professional service leaders who are confident with strategic engagement and their own authentic mode of ‘being strategic’.


Future Professional Directors takes place over nine months and includes three residential modules, two action learning sets, an online environment to support continuous learning, and a 360-degree diagnostic.

Future Professional Directors is for professional service leaders from all areas of the University who have demonstrated strong leadership potential

Applications for Future Professional Directors are now open. The application deadline is Friday 23 February 2018.