Why Women Can Solve Inefficiency in the Workplace
Why Women Can Solve Inefficiency in the Workplace - Hay Group's Jon DymondReuters

Strip away the obvious differences and most businesses today still operate as they did in the 1960s and 1970s, with a primary focus on getting things done efficiently.

The basics of investing capital to sell customers a product or service in a way that'll deliver the highest margin at the lowest risk remain. The goal of maximum profitability – achieved by choosing the right markets and then being efficient – remains key.

These basics of business were forged in a male dominated environment and resulted in a specific culture founded on delivery and execution. Notions of success and achievement were narrow and managers typically focussed on telling people below them what to do so as to be as effective as possible.

The Times Are Changing

Times are changing and a preoccupation with 'efficiency' is, as many have recognised, no longer enough.

Don't get me wrong; conducting business in the most efficient way possible is still important. However, success does not just lie in doing something well; it also lies in innovation, in attracting new customers, understanding existing ones and breaking into fresh markets.

Most companies can no longer guarantee that, having reached market-share, efficient operations will deliver profitable growth – a reality brought about by significantly shifting customer demands and employee expectations and the fact that innovation and knowledge sharing are much easier to achieve.

Within this context, businesses have to rely on a diverse group of employees (above and beyond the 'successful white male') to find opportunities and means of growth, and to adapt as markets change, without waiting for direction from the top.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a management approach based on top-down efficiency struggles to cope with this.

Yet it is possible to create a better balance between efficiency on the one hand and responsiveness and innovation on the other. Google's famous 'innovation time' comes to mind as an example.

The notion of an employee dedicating a day a week to side projects of interest is terribly 'inefficient' on the surface. But what management are focused on here is creating the right conditions to harness the talents of their people and get them working better or more productively.

An organisation designed to hold market-share and then be efficient largely ignores employees as individuals and instead assumes we all act the same way, want the same things from our careers and are motivated by the same things.

The result is a failure to engage employees, who might get the job done but are unlikely to bring the full scope of their knowledge and experience to deliver something new or different.

Where Are the Women?

Transitioning away from this efficiency-driven approach requires leaders with a broader palette of management styles and behaviours, extending far beyond the pace-setting and coercive styles many favour.

It requires emotionally aware management capable of recognising and considering a diverse range of wants and needs, and able to lead in different ways.

Women are more likely to be able to deliver on this.

In fact, data from Hay Group's Emotional and Social Competency Inventory – a behavioural database that includes information on the emotional intelligence of more than 17,000 individuals worldwide – found that executive-level women are better skilled in the likes of empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness than their male peers.

Executive-level women are better skilled in the likes of empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness than their male peers
- Hay Group's Emotional and Social Competency Inventory

I'd be surprised if self-awareness featured prominently amongst leaders of an 'efficiency' model, but it's key when listening and responding to the wants and needs of other individuals.

In fact, empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness will all help modern leaders deliver less siloed, more adaptable organisations – ones that can respond to new business challenges and fulfil changing customer demands.

The problem for many is that the efficiency-first method of management remains the basis of much of today's business school and management training curriculum.

To many managers who have climbed the career ladder in the past two to three decades, the way business gets done today is so ingrained that changing the approach can feel 'soft' or unnecessary, a luxury rather than a necessity.

It might be down to 'outsiders' (such as women, Gen Y and employees on the front-line) to make the case for and deliver the change our businesses need if they are to thrive in today's different environment.

This is happening now

We've still a long way to go, but recent, high-profile examples of women taking senior leadership positions and the growing percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards are somewhat encouraging.

We've also reached a point where a balance needs to be struck between two mind-sets; firstly, that senior management knows how to achieve efficiency and so its plan should be doggedly followed; secondly, that people on the frontline know best how to do their work.

The truth for an individual company lies somewhere between the two but the further you move away from a 'senior management knows best' approach the further your whole way of operating and managing needs to change.

For industries struggling with this, look to financial services and banks, which are promoting a customer-orientated culture but struggling to escape an operating model deeply rooted in products and profits.

For best practice industries, look to Fast-Moving Consumer Goods businesses which have to be efficient (selling product to low-margin retailers) while also being creative and reliant on their people rather than their system.

I'm not suggesting a complete overhaul of operations. But I am suggesting that businesses should have some imagination and see how much of the old 'efficiency' culture they can throw out and what they might gain if they do so. In reality, it'll be more than they think.

Jon Dymond is a director at Hay Group.