How to remove the glass ceiling

Glass ceiling
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The corporate glass ceiling is an unacknowledged barrier to advancement in a corporation. It is an invisible but real barrier through which the next stage or level of advancement can be seen, but cannot be reached.

We hear and read about the desire and need to smash it to allow advancement. Smashing and broken glass can, however, be dangerous and smashing the glass ceiling won’t deliver what we need.

We need the opportunity for everyone to be able to advance. Smashing the glass ceiling and removing barriers at the top is not relevant to most people. It is important we tend to the needs of the people at the base where most people work. Rather than smashing it we need to remove it.

Remove it by taking small steps, removing it pane by pane. It is this approach that this article is about.

"Small and comfortable steps"

In our private lives, we change when and only when we make small comfortable steps.

Robert Maurer in his book “One Small Step Can Change Your Life, The Kaizen Way,” explains how any why this happens and how organisations can use this knowledge to their benefit.

The human brain co-operates with low-key change.

Maurer believes the key to managing and implementing change is to understand one’s brain.

The human brain co-operates with low-key change. Changes that are small, circumnavigate the fears that blocks change, success and creativity. Maurer maintains the key to big change is to take small steps in a non-threaten way or environment.

Maurer maintains change for most people is frightening and the fear of it is rooted in the brain’s psychology. We have a triune brain and our challenge is to develop and maintain harmony among these brains.

"The three-brain arrangement"

At the bottom of the brain is the brain stem or reptilian brain, it wakes us up in the morning and sends us off to sleep at night. On top of this is the mammalian brain. This regulates the body temperature, houses the emotions and governs the flight or fight response that keeps us out of danger.

We have a triune brain and our challenge is to develop and maintain harmony among these brains.

At the top is the cortex where our rational thoughts and creative impulses take place. When we want to make a change or jump start the creative process we need to access the cortex.

The three brain arrangement does not, however, always function smoothly.

It's not always a smooth brain journey...

Our rational brain directs us to lose weight and then we eat a whole box of chocolates. Or we try to come up with a creative pitch for a project and our minds go blank.

When we want to change but experience a block we blame the mid brain and a structure within it called the amygdale. The amygdale alerts the body for action in the face of immediate danger.

One way it does this is to slow down or stop other functions such as rational and creative thinking that could interfere with the physical ability to run or fight.  

Large goals generate fear and can explain why we eat the box of chocolates on the first day of our diet.

The amygdale sets off alarm bells when we want to make a departure from our usual safe routines. New challenges trigger some degree of fear. Fear shuts down the cortex of the brain, the creative thinking part.

Large goals generate fear and can explain why we eat the box of chocolates on the first day of our diet.

With small goals fears are bypassed. The amygdale, the giant, sleeps. The cortex becomes engaged and it is this that allows success and change to happen. With small changes, the brain begins new pathways and the resistance to change begins to weaken.

The place of 'large goals' in the workplace

This trait manifests itself in the workplace. Researchers at the Centre for Creative Leadership and at Personal Decisions International conclude that managers who are technically competent but who fail are variously perceived as arrogant, vindictive, untrustworthy, selfish, emotional, compulsive, over-controlling, insensitive, abrasive, aloof, too ambitious or unable to delegate.

These dispositions usually come to the fore when people are in a state of fear and stressed. They are facing what are perceived as ‘large goals’ and ‘big changes.’ Their amygdale wakes up.

When this happens, people who work with them feel uncomfortable and threatened; these behaviours damage respect and reduce the constituency of support leaders need when they are in the pursuit of their agendas.

Small actions satisfy your brain’s need to do something and sooth its distress.

People who operate like this get by but are probably gradually failing or at least not achieving their potential and it is very likely they have no idea why. They perceive a glass ceiling.

An argument for 'small actions'

Small actions satisfy your brain’s need to do something and sooth its distress. As the alarm dies down access to the cortex is regained and get the creative juices flowing again.

Taking small steps rewires the nervous system and it does the following.

It clears creative blocks, surpasses the flight or fight mode, creates new connections between neurons so that the brain enthusiastically takes over the process of change and progress is made toward goals and change.

Leandro Herrero in his book “Viral Change” supports the small steps approach.

He asserts change happens with contagious behaviours that spread slowly at the beginning and then reach a tipping point after which they become the norm. He sees change as an infection that spreads and generates new ideas, processes and behaviours.

Your next steps

To remove the corporate glass ceiling we must first remove our own ceilings by taking small steps to identify our limitations.

Our limitations are our limiting self -beliefs and dysfunctional thoughts we have about ourselves and the behaviours that come to the fore when we are stressed and damage the respect others have for us.

Our limitations are our limiting self -beliefs and dysfunctional thoughts we have about ourselves.

The benefits of this are two-fold. Once we recognise these beliefs and behaviours we can begin to take small steps to remove them. Free from these thoughts and behaviours we become more creative and innovative.

This helps us to recognise the potential of others and work with them to remove their limiting self-beliefs. By helping them to remove their limitations we improve their self-worth and remove their glass-ceilings.

This small step by step helps to improve the lot of the people at the base.

To do as Herrero suggests, a small number of people who belong to networks of influence making small changes to their behaviours. This helps the changes become viral, the amygdale sleeps peacefully. We remove the corporate glass ceiling by removing our own first and then helping others to remove theirs.

James Flanagan can be contacted at [email protected]

About James Flanagan

James Flanagan

James has a deep and thorough understanding of and is an experienced practitioner in

•    Learning & Development
•    Communications
•    Change Management

During the early stages of the project, when the change management deliverables are being defined, he draws on his creativity to build a suitable change framework. Utilising his skills in Learning & Development he then works with client management to increase their understanding of the change management curve, their role in “leading their people and the organisation through the change’ thus helping them to translate the theory into practice and embed the change.

Learning & Development
James has an excellent ability to identify the client behavioural need, design and develop a solution and work with client management to implement and embed it. He is energetic, self-motivated, has a keen attention to detail and is creative when finding solutions to business problems. He has a vocation for helping people learn. In training or coaching scenarios, he not only shows good empathy but also the ability to pinpoint and drill into the key issues.

James develops the communication skills of the internal stakeholders, aligns the communication messages with the project objectives and works with management to deliver them effectively. This allows management to communicate more effectively during periods of change and helps them to overcoming their concern regarding staff’s reaction to announcements about change.

Change Management
James is adept at reading situations and people and uses these skills to understand the mindset of the stakeholders. He draws on his creativity to build a suitable change framework. Using his management development skills, he works with management to increase their understanding of change management and their role in it and works with them to translate theory into practice and embed the change.


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