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Change Your Spaces to Increase Performance

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A picture is worth a thousand words, so be careful what it "says"

"We're noticing that our female staff are performing poorly during their annual self-evaluations."

An executive at a successful tech company* couldn't figure out why so many of his female associates were undervaluing their contributions to the organization.

So, I asked him to walk me through the scenario. Literally. I wanted to take a look at the spaces where female associates worked, waited, and pitched their performance.

It became clear that the spaces were undermining female staff at a subconscious level.

WHAT YOU HAVE ON THE WALLS MATTERS

Research (here, here, and here) shows that when women are confronted with threatening environmental cues, neural activity increases in the part of the brain responsible for processing negative social information. When this activity increases, other performance measures worsen.

in other words: a poor choice of wall art can sabotage the performance of your staff

THE PROOF IS IN THE... HIGHER RATINGS

One study documented the effects of exposure to successful female leaders on performance in a leadership-related task.

Subjects were subtly exposed to a picture of Hillary ClintonAngela MerkelBill Clinton, or no picture at all, before they had to give a public speech.

Their speeches were then rated by external observers.

women who had seen a picture of hillary clinton or angela merkel got higher ratings than the others.

What is at play here is the intervention of a counterstereotype.

By and large, the implicit messages directed at women suggest they are less suited to leadership roles and positions of power.

When presented with a counterstereotype, in the case of the study, women who are powerful leaders, subjects are able to perform in kind.

What do your spaces tell your female talent?

When the fin/tech executive walked me through the performance appraisal process, I noted several problematic environmental cues:

Women were the minority

A female employee, looking around her, would see that she was one of only a handful of women working in the department. In fact, women made up less than 32% of the company's staff. There was only one woman on the executive team.

The implicit message was, "You're not the best fit here. It's unlikely you will ever have a seat at the table."

popular media played a role

On her way to her performance appraisal, a female employee would wait at the reception area which featured a big-screen TV set to a music video channel. Images portraying female sexual objectification flashed on the screen. 

The implicit message was, "Here is where you fit. This is what we value in a woman. This is a woman's role."

The coffee table was home to a handful of magazines: a landscape photography publication and two issues of a men's magazine with front-page portraits of powerful male celebrities.

The implicit message was, "This is who we prize. This is who we want to be like. You are not this."

the name of the space mattered

Finally, a female employee would present her self-evaluation (to one or more male executives) in a boardroom. Each boardroom - with the exception of one - was named for a powerful historical male figure.

The implicit message was, "These people are inspirational. These people are who we look up to. You are not like these people."

"But we didn't intend to send those messages. How could we have known?"

I pointed out that these décor gaffs might have been avoided if their workforce was more diverse to begin with. They had designed the space using input from the talent they had on hand (which was nearly 70% male). Even if a female staff member was aware of the stereotype triggering effect of these design elements, since female representation was below critical mass, it is unlikely she would have leveraged her viewpoint to the advantage of the company.

Groups make better decisions when they are able to draw on cognitive diversity (a.k.a. different ways of thinking, approaching tasks, and solving problems as a result of different backgrounds, life experiences, gender, age, ability, ethnicity, etc.)

HOW DO YOU LEVERAGE SPACES FOR INCREASED PERFORMANCE?

ELIMINATE NEGATIVE STEREOTYPE TRIGGERS

  • re-think your informal media offerings

prime your talent to succeed

  • there is something to be said for a pre-pitch pump-up session
  • make power-posing a frequent practice

 

"When entering a board room, you typically meet the previous—typically all male—company leaders. Correcting this sort of gender inequality through design is the very definition of low-hanging fruit, or at about the height one hangs a picture."
 
- IRIS BOHNET, What Works
 

*Details have been fictionalized to protect the identity of the organization.

© Dr. Kristen Liesch 2017. All rights reserved.