Doing Our Superman Thing: The Perils of Being a Good Guy

Don't get caught up in “look how cool I am” moments.



Change the people and systems around you and you change the dysfunctional status quo.

For men who want to see change in gender relations in their workplaces and communities, this assertion makes all kinds of sense. For example, when confronted with men who behave like jerks and disrespectfully undermine their women colleagues, the right thing to do is to require that they stop the harmful behavior and get their acts together immediately.  And if they need a figurative ass whuppin’ to motivate them, then so be it.

But I think the greatest opportunity to drive change in gender relations is not so much in fixing those jerks. Instead, the most powerful motor for change comes from looking at the motivations and behaviors of us “good guys” who vigilantly hold the “bad guys” accountable.

A few years ago, I underwent a powerful learning experience when I attended a series of leadership classes and seminars as part of the Learning as Leadership (LAL) curriculum. LAL is a firm of several skilled consultants and teachers who help leaders from all kinds of corporate, non-profit, and public sector organizations improve their ability to achieve their mission and goals. There, I learned the concept of “desired” and “dreaded” images. These are images we carry about ourselves and that we invest lots of energy trying to persuade others to carry about us, too.

Desired images are the good ones; these are the perceptions that we want others to hold about us because they make us look good. I want people to see me as intelligent and educated, so I use multisyllabic words when simpler ones would do (see how I just did that?) Dreaded images are the flip side; we work to make sure people don’t see us in these ways. I don’t want to be seen as uptight, so I regularly arrive at meetings a few minutes late and always with a relaxed a demeanor. Everyone carries these images, and they don’t have to lead to bad habits like tardiness. The key is in managing our images effectively.

And that takes us back to the good guys. We good guys (and I count myself in this category) want other people to see us as allies for women and champions for gender equality. Now, let me be clear:  I’m not saying that we advocates are not passionately committed to constructive change. And I’m not saying that we only care about change because we want to portray a virtuous image. I am saying that in addition to our genuine commitment, we also carry this little piece of ego that gets off on being seen as righteous champions for good. To quote one of my favorite lines from the Matrix movies, “we’re doing our Superman thing.” In addition, I’m saying that when we are motivated by that ego, we undermine our ability to help women and men change the damaging patterns of behavior in so many gender relations.

Let me give you a classic example. A woman friend of mine had to deal with a sexual harassment situation at work in which a co-worker was coming on to her and making very inappropriate public remarks. When she broached the topic with her boss (a good guy) he was pissed. He immediately dressed down this guy with all manner of zero-tolerance language: “I won’t stand for that behavior here!” “You’re suspended and on probation!” “It ends now or you’re gone from here!” etc., etc. My friend appreciated the intent behind what she called the “support script,” but said her boss had basically screwed her.

When I asked her what she meant by “support script,” she said that was the way that good guys act when they want to be seen as “protectors of women, liberty, and all that is pure.”  In fact, she said, her boss did not really care about her well-being as much as he cared about being the guy who beats the crap out of guys who are mean to girls. As a result her boss’ intervention, the harasser and his friends made it more difficult for her to accomplish her work objectives for a time. The guys who were neutral to both parties became wary of her because they saw her as playing the gender/sex card.  Even her women colleagues kept their distance for awhile because they didn’t want to be labeled a “whining woman.” My friend really struggled in the aftermath and almost left the company. The environment was incredibly tense and, not surprisingly, collaboration really suffered.

The problem with succumbing to the desire to be seen a certain way is that it clouds our ability to accurately analyze a situation and act with wisdom and savvy. We lose track of our real goals and values—like fairness, equity, and creating a vibrant work environment—and get caught up in “look how cool I am” moments. I’ve been there. And I’ve seen many men who advocate for real change behave just this way.

If you really want to create sustained positive change, don’t look for bad guys to beat up. Instead:
  1. Focus on the vision of change you want.
  2. Take a beat and stifle the impulse to don your cape.
  3. Develop a discipline of asking yourself the question, “What can I do in this situation to help my people and my organization achieve that vision?”
  4. Seek out other people to help you temper your righteous indignation.
  5. Marshal your experience and wisdom to deal with the situation.
Only then will you really start doing the right thing.

For more on these key skills, check out, “Rethinking Political Correctness,” in the September 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review. My coauthors (Robin Ely and Deborah Myerson) and I explain them in more depth.
Posted by Martin Davidson on Jul 17, 2012 2:55 PM EDT

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